On the way home to Atlanta from spring break a couple of weeks ago, we made a great road-food discovery. JK House Korean Restaurant is less than a mile off of I-85 in Valley, Alabama, just across the Georgia state line. It caters to the Korean management community for the nearby Kia Motors Manufacturing Plant in West Point, Georgia.
Of course, getting my family to eat Korean food is another matter altogether.
Below is the Sunday column I wrote about the restaurant. But I’m curious to know. What are your great hidden finds for road food in and out of Atlanta?
A Korean find in Alabama
By the time we pulled into Valley, Ala., my wife was fast asleep, the teenage girls in the back seats had depleted every laptop battery on episode after episode of “The O.C., ” and the minivan was out of gas. We had been driving for nearly five hours, and once I stopped at a gas station, stomachs started growling.
We looked around. There were a couple of fast food places and many, many bags of crunchy snack items to be had, but nothing that looked like an appealing restaurant.
And so I pulled out the handy-dandy Yelp! app on my mobile device, set it to “nearby restaurants” and scanned the list.
It didn’t look promising. Subway, Wendy’s, Captain D’s, Papa John’s —hello! — JK House Korean Restaurant.
“Does anyone want Korean food?” I asked.
“Sure.” “Yeah.” “Why not?” Moderate enthusiasm.
I was excited because Korean food is never crossover food the way Thai invariably is and Japanese usually is. The restaurant was there because for whatever reason, enough Korean people lived in Valley, Ala., to merit a restaurant. This would be the kind of roadside dining find I live for. I just knew it.
We drove our 0.8 miles and pulled into a strip retail center. On one end was JK’s — stark, brightly lit, completely empty. Tinny Korean pop music spilled to the asphalt.
“No one’s there, Daddy, ” moaned one of the children.
At the other end of the strip, beyond closed, dark storefronts, was Zen House, a restaurant with a colorful, expensive-looking facade and a bright sign set in that blocky Asian font of Chinese restaurants past.
“I’m going to go check out Zen House, ” said my wife, taking off at a sprint and leaving the rest of us to smile and hover by the smiling woman who emerged from JK House and was trying to usher us in.
My wife returned, beaming. “There are people in there! It looks really warm. Can we go, please?”
So we made excuses to Mrs. JK and traipsed into Zen House.
It was that kind of Chinese restaurant. The Buddha figurines. The backlit wall panels of mountain scenes. The silk flowers. The easy-listening version of some 1980s hair ballad, the glum-looking people eating shiny fried blobs and acid yellow rice. No!
I looked at the menu and my mind wandered. What looks good here? Nothing.
When my wife was in the restroom, I told the kids to order me a cup of soup, excused myself and ran back to JK House.
“Hello!” said the woman, surprised to see me return.
“Can I order carryout?”
“Yes, of course!” she said, opening a menu.
It all looked so good! I wanted bi bim bap: beef and mixed vegetables over rice with a fried egg. I wanted kimchi jigae: stew of kimchi, tofu, mushrooms, rice cakes and meat. I got both, and ran back to Zen House.
Ten minutes later, I ran back to pick up my food. The woman and I talked a bit as she packed my bag. The restaurant opened soon after the Kia plant, just across the state line in West Point, Ga.
She asked if I knew about Korean side dishes. “Ban chan?” I asked, referring to the profusion of pickles, marinated veggies and fish cakes that accompany a Korean meal.
She laughed heartily. “You know ban chan? Then I am going to give you so much ban chan!” She was gleeful.
I went back to Zen House with my bags groaning with Korean food just as the Chinese food started to arrive. My daughter bit into a dripping blob of sesame chicken and sighed. My wife picked at a chicken wing, and then took a bite of her egg roll. I asked the waitress if I could eat my carryout in the restaurant, and she said no problem.
I then started unwrapping a riot of colorful vegetables — emerald spinach, crimson kimchi, fantastic shreds of crisp-tender potato slicked in creamy sauce. That bi bim bap was a kaleidoscope ring of gorgeous vegetables and tender beef centered with a perfect sunny side up egg.
“Is that the Korean food?” asked the waitress. “Looks so good!”
It was. I felt kind of like a jackass, but a ravenous, rapturously happy jackass who had been driving for five hours and was eating food that couldn’t possibly taste any better. And when we finally got home, the kimchi jigae was still warm.
JK House Korean Restaurant 3701 20th Ave. Valley, AL 36854; 334-768-2042