Enter Dan Moo Ji, and you will feel like you’ve jumped into the pages of an Asian comic book. Bam! Pow! Cute! Happy, bug-eyed chalk-drawn baby dolls on the blackboard compel you to order the “girl’s set menu.” The walls are tiled with multicolored Post-it messages in Korean. A Black Eyed Peas video bounces along on a flat screen, and there are hearts, flowers and cute little things everywhere.
Your adorable waitress, dressed in a frilled blouse and bubble skirt, brings you modern-style kim bap — Korean sushi rolls — filled with tuna salad and spicy fried chicken. The teenagers here love it.
Their parents? They are likely next door at Harm Heung Cold Noodle — a restaurant evocatively decorated with Korean War memorabilia that looks like the setting for “M*A*S*H: The Musical.” Tables are plywood rounds set over oil drums; a model aircraft is suspended from the ceiling, and vintage oddities such as a standing phonograph and a red mailbox line the walls.
Everyone is slurping up bowls of deliciously stretchy naeng myun noodles in ice-cold broth tinged with dollops of stinging mustard.
Welcome to Duluth, circa 2010. This Gwinnett County suburb and Suwanee to the north have in recent years seen an amazing influx of new Korean and other Asian restaurants. These once-sleepy burgs have been transformed into the most fertile grounds for ethnic dining exploration.
Think of it this way. Buford Highway is to Atlanta what Chinatown is to Manhattan. But Duluth and Suwanee — they’re our Queens. You have to travel a bit — whether by the No. 7 train in New York or I-85 here — but you arrive in a strange and delicious world upon arrival.
“It’s young, and it’s new, and it’s fresh, ” enthuses Jennifer Zyman, who writes the Blissful Glutton blog. “Every new restaurant that opens up there is better than the rest. I love Buford Highway, but I love Duluth more.”
Duluth doesn’t have the polyglot polymorphism of Buford Highway — nearly all the interesting new restaurants are Korean — but many of the new spots have a trendiness and level of ambition you won’t find elsewhere.
Myung Ga Won, just a stone’s throw from I-85, is an elaborate two-story dinner house with a retro-elegant design sensibility that is right out of “Mad Men.” (Think orange and mustard checkerboard walls against pale gray pleather sofas.) But it also makes wonderful tabletop barbecue and a gorgeous bowl of sulong tang — soup made with beef bones and slips of certified Angus beef that you season yourself at the table with coarse sea salt, pepper and scallions. You can’t imagine a purer flavor.
Just across the way stands Iron Age, a hipstery samgyeopsal jip (pork belly house) that is done up — no joke — like a North Korean gulag.
The staff wears military outfits and they serve you your makgeolli (cloudy rice wine — absolutely delicious) in dented tin prison cups. You drink this as you griddle pieces of pork and beef over an iron plate and wrap it with kimchi and salad in rice-paper sheets. You end up with drifts of food on the table.
“The ritual of mixing all the fried leftovers with rice and squid is the best part of the experience, ” advises Gene Lee, the Korean-American who writes the Eat, Drink, Man… A Food Journal blog.
Specialization has become the name of the game at these new restaurants. Bonjuk serves a long menu of sweet and savory rice porridge dishes. Book Chang Dong builds a glorious meal around bubbling pots of seasoned tofu called soon dubu. Shabu King serves cook-it-yourself hot pots, but everyone knows to go there for the enormous hand-stuffed pork-and-vegetable dumplings called king mandu. “They’re pure gluttony, ” says Lee approvingly.
Why are there so many Korean restaurants in Duluth?
Chloe Morris, who writes the Chow Down Atlanta blog, notes that Koreans and Korean-American developers “have the capital, and they are building so much infrastructure in Duluth. They’re often the only ones who can provide merchants for the space.”
Morris notes that so many higher-end Korean restaurants have opened in Duluth that she’s learned to search out more inexpensive alternatives. For instance, Honey Pig is the best known and most glossily decorated pork belly house, but a plate of meat can cost upwards of $20. “I like Cafe Todahmgol as an alternative to Honey Pig, ” she says. “Cafe T. doesn’t have the frills, but it doesn’t have the high price tag, either. And they’re got all kinds of meat.”
Likewise, the scores of fancy barbecue houses, like Myung Ga Won, charge top dollar for plates of marinated beef short ribs, rib eye and pork. But she prefers going to Sodeulnyuk in Suwanee, where $14.99 gets her “seven or eight kinds of meat, including the rib eye. It’s all you can eat, but if you go, you’ve got to keep on them. Ask for more, more, more.”
From pop-culture sushi rolls to all-you-can-eat beef barbecue, there’s a world to explore.
Jennifer Zyman (Blissful Glutton) recommends:
Ming’s Bar B Q: There’s some good Chinese food in Duluth, too. Everything from clams in black bean sauce to French toast at this modern, Hong Kong-style teahouse is worth ordering. 2131 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth.
White Windmill Bakery: Reliable chain of Korean bakeries with fantastic milk bread; 2550 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth.
Bonjuk: Korean rice porridge, served in a variety of flavors from sweet to savory; 2645 N. Berkeley Lake Road, Duluth.
Chloe Morris (Chow Down Atlanta) recommends:
Cafe Todahmgol: Inexpensive barbecue and pork belly restaurant with excellent food in no-frills dining room; 2442 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth.
Sodeulnyuk: All-you-can-eat Korean barbecue with loads of meat offered; 2790 Lawrenceville Suwanee Road Northwest, Suwanee.
Gene Lee (Eat, Drink, Man… A Food Journal) recommends these places in an email. Note that some of the items mentioned above, such as sulong tang and makkoli, are romanized differently:
Shabu King: Delicious Korean style shabu shabu. Their handmade king mandu are pure gluttony.
Gang Seo: Traditional or more Korean blue collar type fare such as seollangtang (24 hr bone soup), sundae (blood sausage), budae jjigae (army base stew) or one of my favorites, jokbal (pig trotter) served with a saujeot (shrimp/soy dipping sauce).
Dan Moo Ji: Fried Chicken wings with tangy spicy dipping sauce, Ojingeo gim bop (squid rice seaweed rolls), Tteok Boki (rice and fish cake stew). This place is geared for a younger Asian crowd and the menu and prices reflect that. It’s almost like Korean street food that has been moved inside and conceptualized into Korean pop. As I told you, this food is kind of popular with the young drinking types who want to soak up all that alcohol after a long night of clubbing. I’ve always heard about tteok boki food carts being bombarded by Korean kids on chilly 4am evenings…
Myung Ga Won: Excellent Korean bbq and jeongols (big wide wok-like cauldrons cooked tableside with spicy boiling noodle soups).
Honey Pig & Iron Age: Samgyeopsal Jip (Pork Belly Restaurants). I like going to one of these places with a large group and ordering an assortment of things off the menu and drinking makgeolli (Rice wine). The ritual of mixing all the fried leftovers with rice and squid is the best part of the experience. Even though the makgeolli is drunk out of those metallic prison cups, I have seen on the internet and experience at Tofu Village (not in Duluth) where it’s served the more traditional way – in wide clay pots with a big ladle you pour into small matching clay drinking cups.
Umaido: Excellent ramen made by Koreans. I love all the different spice levels that are offered and that you can get more noodles or charshu added for a small charge. I also love that they give you a mini container of freshly made kimchi.
Do Re Mi or Luxor Karaoke: I love these noraebang (Korean word for karaoke) places. They remind me of Korea. Tacky design like the way your Korean mom would design a nice place (it actually looks like my house growing up). You can get a wonderful assortment of sojus, beers and eat tasty late night snacks such as Korean version of fried chicken (Yangnyeom Dak). There’s also Tang Su Yuk which is a Korean version of sweet and sour chicken that is popular to snack on while belting out tunes.
IF YOU GO:
Here’s where to find the Duluth and Suwanee-area restaurants recommended above as well as worthwhile others nearby.
Nukoa Plaza, 3230 Steve Reynolds Blvd., Duluth, GA 30096:
Gwinnett Mall Corners Shopping Center, 2131 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth, GA 30096:
Super H Mart Plaza, 2550 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth, GA 30096:
Berkeley Pointe, 2645 N. Berkeley Lake Road:
McDaniel Square, 3473 Old Norcross Road, Duluth, GA 30096:
JC Plaza, 2790 Lawrenceville Suwanee Road NW Suwanee, GA 30024-2671: