Korean restaurant puts Southern kick to good use

Sobban — Decatur

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Food: Korean with a Southern twang

Service: fine, but can get overwhelmed at peak times

Best dishes: fresh tofu, pork belly bossam, bingsu

Vegetarian selections: multiple salads and vegetarian-friendly noodle dishes

Price range: $-$$

Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, Discover

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, closed Sundays-Mondays

Children: fine, but rarely spotted

Parking: sufficient, but can get tight on a busy day

Reservations: no

Wheelchair access: yes

Smoking: no

Noise level: moderate to loud

Patio: yes

Takeout: yes

Address, phone: 1788 Clairmont Road, Decatur, 678-705-4233

Website: www.sobban.com


Heirloom Market BBQ

Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee's first joint venture, Heirloom Market BBQ, combines hearty Southern barbecue with splashes of Korean flavors. First-timers must try the pulled pork and kimchee sandwich, and don't skip a side of the Korean sweet potatoes if they are available. The restaurant is now mostly takeout only, but there is still standing room on the heated patio if you just can't wait to dig in. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays, noon-9 p.m. Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays. 2243 Akers Mill Road, Atlanta. 770-612-2502, http://heirloommarketbbq.com. $

Woo Nam Jeong — Stone Bowl House

You will be hard-pressed to find a better version of bibimbap in Atlanta than the one served in a hot stone bowl at Woo Nam Jeong. And this is also a great spot for Korean cuisine novices, as owner Young Hui Han — affectionately known as “grandma” — is always happy to point beginners in the right direction. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily except closed Wednesdays. 5953 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 678-530-0844. $-$$

Honey Pig – Duluth

If you are new to the Korean barbecue experience, or even if you are a seasoned vet, then Honey Pig in Duluth should be high on your list of places to try. Each table features a heated iron dome in the center, and you order plates of raw meat or fish that you grill yourself. Both the "honey pig" (pork belly) and the bulgogi (marinated beef) are highly recommended. This is a great spot to come with a group, but be prepared — you will likely leave there uncomfortably full, because it's just too tempting to leave any of that pork belly behind. 11 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-midnight Sundays. 3473 Old Norcross Road, Suite 304, Duluth. 770-476-9292, www.honeypigatl.com. $$

He’s a little bit country, and she’s a little bit … K-pop?

However unlikely that combination may seem, the duo of Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee, the team behind the popular Heirloom Market BBQ, hooked diners in Atlanta and beyond with their innovative fusion of old-school Southern barbecue with bursts of Korean flavor. Taylor, from Eastern Tennessee, and Lee, a former teen-Korean-pop-star-turned-chef, met while working together in the kitchen at Repast, and found a wonderful synergy between their hometown cooking.

The pair opened their second restaurant, Sobban, last fall in Decatur and flipped their formula upside-down. The new venture puts Lee at the helm in the kitchen, serving up traditional Korean dishes with a little Southern kick. You’d be hard-pressed to find another kitchen in town offering panko-crusted corn dogs with nori ground into the brisket and pork butt blend, with some bibimbap sauce on the side ($7).

When Kitsch’n 155 closed its doors last year, Taylor and Lee found the perfect location to inject some good ethnic food into otherwise barren North Decatur. The building, which began in 1969 as a then ultra-modern Arby’s, certainly stands out with its rounded retro rooftop. But Taylor and Lee gave the interior a major upgrade – gone are the vintage turquoise walls and gaudy linoleum floors, replaced with a warmer, cozier decor heavy with dark wooden tones. This makes sense when you realize that “Sobban” translates roughly into “the Korean version of the everyday Southern family table” (per the restaurant’s website at least).

To those used to the once insanely cramped restaurant-turned-takeout-only Heirloom Market, the space here may seem huge, but be warned — by most standards, the seating area is quite small. You have a pair of booths and a handful of two and four tops centered around a communal table for eight, and a narrow bar lines the window facing out onto the stone and concrete patio. As such, you may hit a bit of a wait, as those tables become prime real estate during peak hours, when service can sometimes feel harried. At a recent lunch around 1 p.m., I was in and out in less than 25 minutes, so timing is key.

While Lee’s menu constantly evolves, fans of Heirloom will notice a familiar favorite on the menu, as the popular Korean Fried Chicken Wings ($12) earned a permanent spot at Sobban. It isn’t tough to see why these sticky, sweet and spicy wings, heavily breaded and drenched in a chili ginger sauce, sell out quickly at either location.

Though it feels more Southern than Korean, I hope that the fried kimchee bologna sandwich ($9) sticks around for a while as well. Relatively simple, the thick-cut bologna — which Taylor makes himself and smokes at Heirloom Market before hauling it over to Decatur — will banish your childhood memories of the mystery meat lurking in your lunchbox. Topped with a heap of funky, spicy table kimchee and a generous spread of Korean mustard, it is at once both mysteriously delicious with a hint of guilty pleasure.

Every table, whether for one or a group, should kick things off with a round of the smoked pork belly bossam ($12). Everyone will relish the lettuce-wrapped crispy tiles of smoked belly topped with crispy rice, and shouldn’t forget to add a few hearty dollops of the thick, spicy bibimbap sauce. And I never eat here without a round of the deviled eggs ($6), which bring a nice punch of spicy kimchee funk to the back of the sinuses.

Taylor and Lee take pride in making nearly everything in-house, and their homemade fresh tofu ($9) is perhaps the kitchen at its most refined. Slices of delicate tofu arrive on a bed of miso mousse, with a soy ginger reduction, Granny Smith apples, kimchee, and roasted nori flakes. This isn’t to be missed.

Though I rarely save enough room for dessert at most of my meals, I never leave Sobban without at least a few spoonfuls of the bingsu — a traditional Korean shaved ice dessert. And while I thoroughly enjoy each of the three versions served here, you should start with the Sobban Bingsu ($5). Layers of Korean pear compote, sweet red azuki beans, and a scoop of green tea ice cream sit on a pillow of shaved ice, each bite sweetened by a swirl of condensed milk.

While grizzled veterans of Buford Highway Korean dining or stalwart traditionalists may find plenty to nitpick at Sobban, Lee and Taylor’s fresh take on the cuisine consistently proves to be delicious and fun, and presents you with flavor combinations you won’t find anywhere else in the city. Definitely worth the trip.