Fork in the Road: The Seoul of Atlanta

Andrew Thomas Lee
by John T. Edge - Atlanta - August/September 2014

In the city's sprawling exurbs, home to some 50,000 Korean immigrants, John T. Edge and musician Joe Kwon taste a new kind of Southern cooking

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>Video: In search of Korean cuisine in the exurbs of Atlanta

The house music at C'est Si Bon segues from the Gone with the Wind theme to “Puff, the Magic Dragon” as Joe Kwon and I dig long-handled spoons into a chilled copper bowl, heaped with the Korean dessert called patbingsu. We stir the red beans into the shaved ice. We fold puffed rice cakes and toasted brown rice under a kaleidoscope of fruit cocktail. As the ice melts, we eat our way to the bottom of the bowl. Each bite brings a new crunch. Each slurp brings a new sweetness.

If you’re a fan of contemporary music, you probably know Joe Kwon’s name. Or you know his fretwork. Joe is the cellist who bounds across the stage for the Avett Brothers, the North Carolina folk rock group that fuses a Doc Watson respect for tradition with bursts of agitated energy more often associated with bands like the Buzzcocks. He’s the kind of eater who documents his tour meals with a Leica, the kind of thinker who, in the midst of a conversation about the Korean fried chicken trend now sweeping the nation, says, “I never knew that other Koreans ate fried chicken. I always thought that my family ate it because we’re Southern.”

Northeast of Atlanta in Duluth, Joe and I discover a doppelgänger planet, at once Korean and Southern, a world familiar and odd. Powdered sweet potato flavors the lattes we drink. Orders for pan-fried calamari get slathers of gochujang chile paste. And double-decker shopping centers shelter barbecue joints where we drink shots of soju—the clear rice liquor that tastes like a cross between pinot gris and moonshine—and tend tabletop charcoal braziers, sputtering with slabs of pork belly and cones of shaved beef brisket.

Some of the foods ring familiar at C’est Si Bon, a strip-mall cocktail lounge run by a courtly Korean émigré who made first landfall in Charlotte and now serves pulled Carolina pork barbecue platters. So does much of the music that the owner, Chris Kim, plays. Dressed in button-down shirts and gray slacks, he takes the stage weekend nights to trill the piano and sing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” for the chair-dancing pleasure of a mostly Korean crowd, one of whom likes to park a four-door Maserati out front.

I would be exaggerating, though, if I said that the Atlanta we glimpse on our two-day jaunt looks and sounds and tastes like the South that Joe and I already know. Instead, as we dart through parking lots in our white Kia rental—ducking into a Korean bakery that serves hot dog and cheese croissants and a Christian bookstore that sells gilt-edged Bibles, dining at a barbecue restaurant that abuts an acupuncture clinic, and staring up at a concert billboard for a Korean Justin Bieber—Joe and I glimpse the beautifully diverse South we will all soon know, as immigrants to the region scratch out hybridized identities like deejays working the cultural equivalence of two turntables and a microphone.

SEE ALSO: A Six-Stop Tour of Korean Atlanta

We are both sons of the South. At White Windmill, a mod chain bakery with numerous locations on Atlanta’s northern rim, Joe and I eat a morning brace of fish-shaped mini waffles, stuffed with vanilla cream and toasted in flip-top irons, and share origin stories. He’s Korean, with a cream-colored face, round black glasses, and a well-coiffed mane. I’m a pasty white boy, with clunky green glasses and a high and tight haircut. But our childhoods mirror. Born in South Korea, he grew up in High Point, North Carolina, amid twenty-four acres of dense pines, in a house reached by a gravel road. I grew up near Gray, Georgia, on fourteen red clay acres, bordered by black walnut trees, where I too knew the crunch of gravel under my feet.

Joe and I met this past winter at a benefit in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his fiancée, the entomologist Emily Meineke. Over a long and boozy dinner, we recognized that we both deeply love our region. And we are both deeply committed to redefining our South for an inclusive future. When the Avetts took a rare break from touring, Joe and I schemed to eat our way toward détente.

We could have explored other Korean-Southern enclaves. Like the suburbs of Northern Virginia, where megamall teens queue for kimbap rolls, threaded with tuna fish and bound with mayo. Or the east side of Montgomery, Alabama, where Hyundai middle managers scarf platters of salt-roasted duck and drink thimbles of the fizzy fermented rice wine known as makgeolli. Or the tentacled and tangled frontage roads of Houston, where Korean Presbyterian churches abut Korean taco joints.

But we made our move in exurban Atlanta. Here, more than 50,000 Korean immigrants read a daily local Korean-language newspaper, listen to a Korean radio station, and watch three Korean television channels. Here, we sit for dinners at tables blanketed with saucers of chive kimchi, sweet-potato noodles, and pickled turnips, the traditional array of Korean small plates known as banchan.