Atlanta Orders In: Mukja Korean Fried Chicken has a secret sauce — passion

This takeout order from Mukja Korean Fried Chicken includes a whole fried chicken with sauces, fries, pickled radish and sides. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
This takeout order from Mukja Korean Fried Chicken includes a whole fried chicken with sauces, fries, pickled radish and sides. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Young owners put contemporary spin on the bird at their new restaurant in Midtown

Sean Chang grew up in a Korean-American family in Buford and enrolled at the University of Georgia with plans to go to med school. It didn’t take him long to see the experience wasn’t for him. “I just was very unhappy,” said the Los Angeles-born Chang, now 23. “It just didn’t fit right with me. I did not want to spend the rest of my 20s studying.”

What he did love were the connections made through food. On Friday nights, he’d cook a meal in the communal kitchen of his dorm, then feed whomever dropped in hungry. He pondered the idea of a career in restaurants, but he felt such a move might disappoint his family.

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Peter Chung (left) and Sean Chang are the owner-operators of the new Mukja Korean Fried Chicken. Courtesy of Elena Veselova/Veselovaphoto.com
Caption
Peter Chung (left) and Sean Chang are the owner-operators of the new Mukja Korean Fried Chicken. Courtesy of Elena Veselova/Veselovaphoto.com

Credit: Elena Veselova

Credit: Elena Veselova

And, then, on Jan. 31, 2016, something happened that made him rethink where he was headed in life. Driving home from Athens alone late at night, he had a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. When he returned to college, using a wheelchair, he transferred to Georgia State, where he studied hospitality.

Mukja Korean Fried Chicken serves an Atlanta classic — chicken and waffles — with a Korean spin. / Credit: Elena Veselova /  veselovaphoto.com
Caption
Mukja Korean Fried Chicken serves an Atlanta classic — chicken and waffles — with a Korean spin. / Credit: Elena Veselova / veselovaphoto.com

In October, Chang and his partner, Peter Chung, unveiled Mukja Korean Fried Chicken in the Metropolis condominium in Midtown. The two had toyed with the idea of opening a teriyaki spot called Chung & Chang. But, in the end, fried chicken spoke to their backgrounds as Korean-Americans planted in the South and straddling two cultures — Kentucky fried and Korean fried. (Chung, 24, grew up in John’s Creek and studied at Georgia Tech.)

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Customers wait for orders at Mukja Korean Fried Chicken. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Customers wait for orders at Mukja Korean Fried Chicken. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Also, who doesn’t love fried chicken?

Chang certainly does, as I discovered in a recent interview in which he described in some detail the various techniques of butchering, battering, frying and saucing (or not saucing) the chicken. “I was just obsessed with Korean fried chicken,” said Chang, who has gnawed his ancestral bird from Southern California to Suwanee.

Mukja is a deeply personal project, reflecting the fast-food upbringing of its owners. It’s a fast-casual, counter-service establishment that serves chicken boxes with twisted sides inspired by both America and Korea. Macaroni and cheese is made with kimchi and bacon; waffles are concocted with garlic, jalapeño and scallions.

Mukja Korean Fried Chicken is located in the Metropolis condominium building in Midtown Atlanta. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Mukja Korean Fried Chicken is located in the Metropolis condominium building in Midtown Atlanta. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

While most traditional Korean fried chicken joints offer their bird plain or coated with sauce (often fiery, with garlic and gochujang), Mukja’s gently spiced chicken arrives naked, with sauces for dipping on the side.

I approached Mukja with a bit of nostalgia. I lived at the Metropolis in the early 2000s, just after it was built. I remember how the first restaurants in the building struggled, even though the options nearby were limited at the time.

If Mukja had been around then, I would have been a regular.

The chicken was exceptionally crispy. Chang, who spent four years developing recipes, said the secret is the addition of pure grain alcohol to the batter, to impart flakiness. It appears to be a rather thin, delicate batter. Dropped in oil, the coating solidifies into a shattering crunch. (The chicken actually is fried twice, the classic Korean way: Once to cook it internally, a second time to crispen.)

I found it to be even better with a bite of the traditional Korean slaw, a mix of ultra thin scallions and red cabbage with some good heat from the gochugaru vinaigrette and some nuttiness from toasted sesame oil. I also loved the smoked gouda mac and cheese (covered with bits of crispy bacon), and a clever slaw called the Standard (green cabbage, white onion and sweet corn, topped with creamy, gochujang-spiked Thousand Island dressing).

Peter Chung and Sean Chang specialize in fried chicken at their new restaurant, Mukja Korean Fried Chicken. Courtesy of Elena Veselova/Veselovaphoto.com
Caption
Peter Chung and Sean Chang specialize in fried chicken at their new restaurant, Mukja Korean Fried Chicken. Courtesy of Elena Veselova/Veselovaphoto.com

Credit: Elena Veselova

Credit: Elena Veselova

What needs work are the sauces, which tend to be rather sweet. The biggest disappointment was the honey butter. The menu suggests it as a dip for the fries. No thanks. The Korean sweet heat was better, but a bit syrupy and not prickly enough. The soy garlic was the best of the three.

The takeaway: Lovers of Korean fried chicken will want to check out this modern riff. Chang is doing what’s good for his soul, it seems. And, it shows.

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

MUKJA KOREAN FRIED CHICKEN

Menu: contemporary take on Korean fried chicken, with creative sides

Alcohol: license pending

What I ordered: whole bird with Korean slaw, macaroni and cheese, the Standard, fries with honey butter, plus large cups of each of the three sauces

Service options: takeout; delivery via Uber Eats and DoorDash

Outdoor dining: no

Mask policy: required for staff and patrons

Address, phone: 933 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta; 404-855-5516

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays

Website: mukjaatl.com

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