John Kessler's tour of Dulth's Park Center Shopping Center

Duluth

Buford Highway isn’t just the name of a road leading to Gwinnett County. It has become a kind of shorthand expression of approval for the array of international dining options in the near north suburbs.

When Atlantans crow about Buford Highway, it means they love trolling Chamblee, Doraville and Norcross for delicious and unfamiliar foods. They love exploring malls on or near this busy street for markets, bakeries, taquerias and storefronts with Cantonese barbecued ducks and chickens hanging in the windows. Perhaps, more than anything else, they love the Korean barbecue restaurants, with their tabletop grills and heavy perfume of sizzling fat.

But if you’re looking for truly mind-blowing Korean fare, keep driving north. Duluth — in particular the stretch of Pleasant Hill Road west of I-85 — has transformed into one of the country’s best destinations for this spicy east Asian cuisine.

Honey Pig, the busy, modern restaurant that specializes in tabletop-cooked pork belly, has been luring adventurous eaters from around the metro region for years. Other well-known stops on the Duluth Korean tour include Iron Age, a fun grilltop restaurant that attracts a young crowd, and Book Chang Dong, an excellent purveyor of the roiling-hot tofu soup called soon dubu. The Pleasant Hill Road branch of Super H Mart remains the biggest and best Korean market in Georgia.

Yet there is more. So, so much more.

If you make an effort to learn about the ins and outs of the Korean dining scene in Duluth, consider two tracks of exploration.

On the first track you’ll find some of the most beautifully and gourmet-minded dining options in greater Atlanta, Korean or otherwise.

The bi-level restaurant called Myung Ga Won looks a bit like Don and Megan Draper’s sumptuous Upper East Side apartment. Two-toned wood paneling and potted trees lend a natural grace to this warren of rooms, where each table occupies its own private alcove. Displays of Korean handicrafts and dolls play off a very mid-century modern palette of burnt orange, yellow and chocolate brown. The menu offers a survey of the Korean repertoire and brags justifiably on the high quality of its beef.

Chung Dam specializes in sushi and Korean-style Japanese fare, but you might find yourself more intrigued by the bubbly tabletop stews and grilled fish entrees. You’ll want to go with a big group to snag one of the convivial private rooms. The well-dressed crowd makes for primo people watching.

Jang Su Jang feels a touch more casual than the other two — the rustic warmth of a cozily appointed mountain lodge as opposed to the high gloss of a dining room. But it still gives you a rush of excitement as you take in the décor. The menu encompasses favorites such as bi bim bap (rice bowls with rainbow-hued toppings) and tofu soup as well as big sharing platters. The bo ssam (pork belly for wrapping in cabbage leaves) is renowned.

Now, on to the second track of Duluth dining: modern Korean fusion. In these restaurants you’ll find rock ’n’ roll soundtracks, craft beers listed on the menus along with Korean Hite, younger crowds, and interesting — if sometimes slightly whacked-out — food.

Fork Story serves Korean-Italian fusion that may make you laugh or scratch your head, but chances are you’ll discover a new favorite. Penne pasta comes with creamed Korean pumpkin sauce; cioppino-seafood soup arrives festooned with sheets of nurungi (crunchy scorched rice crust that is an object of adoration in Korea) and, yes, bulgogi risotto is a thing.

At Raku Tonkatsu + Ramen, young people crowd into the small space at night for the restaurant’s take on hip Korean-style Japanese comfort food. Crisp pork or chicken cutlets the size of laptops and bowls of steaming ramen noodles are the headliners, but the menu has a lot going on.

MJ Korean Tacos & Wings looks like a fast-food joint with its tile floors and fountain sodas, and you could just get a Coke and a plate of lemon-pepper wings if you want. But then you’d miss the pork belly tacos, fried mashed-potato croquette tacos and wonderful smoothies made from fresh fruit and ice with no added sugar.

We hear it’s just like Seoul.

Myung Ga Won

1960 Day Drive, Duluth. 770-622-1300.

  • Best time to visit: Fancy ladies go at lunch, but dinnertime is when this place shines.
  • Small or large group: Go with a party of six to eight, which is what the majority of semi-private tables are built for. Plan on lots of sharing and passing.
  • What to order: Everything, but don’t miss the yuk hwe — fantastic beef tartare with cucumber, pear and sesame oil. Chopped garlic comes thoughtfully on the side. The sulongtang (beef bone soup) also shines.

Chung Dam

2550 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth. 770- 623-0311, chungdamrestaurant.com.

  • Best time to visit: The sushi bar feels inviting at lunch, but this is a dinner spot.
  • Small or large group: The larger, the better. If you’re planning a birthday party for adventurous diners, look no further.
  • What to order: Sushi is the calling card, and it’s fine. But don’t miss the variety of pajeon (crisp, pizza-sized pancakes to eat with dipping sauce) and the great grilled fish. Hot pots and stews are also fine.

Jang Su Jang

3645 Satellite Boulevard, Duluth. 678-475-9170, jangsujangatlanta.com.

  • Best time to visit: Lunch or dinner, always busy.
  • Small or large group: Either. At night you’ll want a posse to order the bo ssam. But at lunch you’ll favor the tofu soup with a side of barbecued short ribs, or the bim bim bap cooked in a hot stone pot.

MJ Korean Tacos & Wings

3645 Satellite Boulevard, Duluth. 678-475-9170, mjkoreantacos.com.

  • When to visit: Lunch.
  • Small or large group: Small, it’s fast food.
  • What to order: Try the pork belly tacos with added kimchi and the bi bim bap sub. Don’t miss the fried mashed potato taco served TOMA style, with lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese and sour cream. Smoothies are great.

Fork Story

2550 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth. 770-687-2635.

  • When to visit: Nighttime is better, but consider it for lunch after shopping at Super H Mart in the same mall.
  • Small group or large: Good for a double date so you can taste and pass the unusual Korean-Italian fusion dishes.
  • What to order: The dduk bbo ki gratin features glutinous rice cakes and rotini pasta in a gochujang (spicy chili paste) tomato sauce under a blanket of cheese. The house pickles are so addictive you’ll want to buy a jar to bring home.

Raku Tonkatsu + Ramen

2550 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth. 770-476-1212, rakuramen.com.

  • When to visit: Go at night, when the crowd is fun and the beer is flowing.
  • Small or large group: It’s noisy inside, so a party of four is perfect.
  • What to order: Try the pork tonkatsu (breaded cutlet) with curry sauce. It comes with soup, rice and pickles.

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