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Seoul of the South

Gwinnett County, about 30 minutes northeast of downtown Atlanta, is home to the South’s largest Korean population. The tourism organization there is marketing the influx of businesses catering to Koreans as a cultural destination, bending Southern soul into the Seoul of the South campaign.

To explore Atlanta’s Koreatown, plan on landing at either Gwinnett County-Briscoe Field, near the county seat of Lawrenceville, or DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in neighboring DeKalb County.

The Korean community in Gwinnett—estimated to be about 22,000 people in 2014 through a U.S. Census Bureau survey—is spread among the 16 cities making up the second-largest county in the state. The largest concentration of businesses and services is in Duluth and Suwanee, where it’s common to see signs in Korean for banks, markets, and churches. The growth in population started about two decades ago and is attributed to the suburb’s convenient location off I-85, its good schools, and the growing infrastructure that attracts more residents and now visitors.

Jang Su Jang, which means “The Meeting Place,” is a longtime staple in Atlanta’s Korean community. You’ll find Korean food novices here as well as Koreans dining on authentic classics such as steamed pork belly served with pickled cabbage and galbi-jjim, a slow simmered short rib stew. Photo courtesy of Explore Gwinnett.

You can spend half a day on a guided tour, or spend a day or two exploring on your own.

You’ll find spas offering traditional Korean heat therapy, hot and cold tubs, saunas made from materials with healing properties, as well as massages and other body treatments; Korean-style karaoke lounges with private rooms; mega markets selling Korean kitchen staples, home goods, and beauty products; and eateries ranging from bakeries, coffee shops, and snack shops to all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue restaurants. 

Explore Gwinnett, the county’s official tourism organization, plans to offer its popular Seoul of the South Korean restaurant tours again in 2021. The organization started the tours in 2017 to immerse locals and visitors in the true Korean culture. They offer the tours once a month May through September, though this year they were only able to offer the September tour due to COVID-19.

Tickets will go on sale in January for the 2021 dates, and they often sell out well in advance. The cost is $50 per person and includes transportation from the starting point, a special swag bag, food provided by restaurants at each stop, and nonalcoholic beverages.

The tour guide is Sarah Park, who was born and raised in South Korea and moved to Gwinnett when she was a teenager. Park takes groups on a trolley from the Explore Gwinnett office to four restaurants and bakeries where you’ll often interact with the chefs and owners. Along the way, she talks about Korean culture in Gwinnett and explains the food you try.

You can create your own day or weekend by tapping into the content that Park and others have posted on the Seoul of the South website, under the “Seoul Searching” and “Guide to Korean Culture” sections.

Find what-to-expect posts about shopping at Korean beauty boutiques or the large Asian markets or spending time at one of the area’s traditional Korean bathhouses. There’s even a “Spend a Day in Korea in Gwinnett” post if you don’t want to build your own itinerary.

The bulk of the material, though, is centered on food. There is a handy list of “Korean Restaurants for Beginners” as well as the next step, “Intermediate Korean Restaurants.” More adventurous eaters will want to read individual features on restaurants such as Gop Chang on Fire, which specializes in marinated and grilled offal, such as intestines and tripe.

Korean barbecue—grilling meat such as beef, chicken, or pork on gas or charcoal grills inlaid into the dining table—is a popular way to introduce diners to Korean cuisine. High quality cuts of meat are accompanied by a table full of family-style side dishes. There are many Korean barbecue options in Gwinnett County, including Breakers Korean Grill and Barbecue shown here. Photo courtesy of Explore Gwinnett.

If you’re new to Korean dining, articles like “5 Korean Bakeries and What to Order” will help and will also make you hungry. Expect friendly service, Park said, and don’t be afraid to ask servers to guide you through menu selections.

Korean barbecue is one of the most approachable introductions to Korean cuisine, and there are many options to choose from in Gwinnett. Some restaurants are grill-your-own-style at the small grills inlaid into your dining table while others have servers come to the table to grill. Some use charcoal grills, others electric.

The basic concept is the same at all: Order your meats and seafood individually or as all-you-can-eat options; options range from bulgogi (marinated beef) to seasoned pork short ribs and shrimp with butter and salt. As the main dishes cook, your table is filled with family-style banchan, Korean for side dishes. These might include pickled and fermented vegetables, including many varieties of kimchi; salads; stir-fried vegetables; and marinated greens.

Beyond barbecue, there are restaurants serving Korean-style soul food and Korean-American fusion dishes, Asian food courts inside large markets, stands selling Korean street food, and bakeries with sweet or savory pastries and specialty coffees and teas.

A sampling of the Korean dishes to expect to find in Gwinnett: sweet potato pizza, kimchi pancake, kimchi fried rice, galbi jjim (braised short ribs dish), tofu soup, kimbap (seaweed rice rolls stuffed with ingredients), Korean fried chicken (double-battered and cut smaller for a crispier treat), matcha soft-serve, and soju, a Korean variation of vodka.

According to Park, there’s not much you can experience in Korea that you can’t also do in Gwinnett.

Beyond exploring the Seoul of the South, you’ll find other international cuisine and culture in Gwinnett, a growing craft beer and brewery scene, outdoor recreation opportunities, and interesting downtowns to explore in many of the county’s cities.

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