Atlanta Orders In: Seoul Chikin owner honors her heritage with Korean pop-up

This Seoul Chikin platter includes a tornado potato, rice balls, slaw and Korean fried chicken. Courtesy of Seoul Chikin
This Seoul Chikin platter includes a tornado potato, rice balls, slaw and Korean fried chicken. Courtesy of Seoul Chikin

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Stephanie Bender was born in Augusta to a Korean mom and an American dad who served in the U.S. Army. A proverbial “military brat,” with a family that moved a good bit, she grew up largely in her mom’s native South Korea, where she soaked up family recipes, including her aunt’s famous fried chicken.

“My passion for cooking came from being raised in the kitchen with these women, and my family, and cooking things from scratch,” said the self-taught chef and owner of Seoul Chikin, a Korean fried chicken pop-up that recently landed the Friday slot at Smith’s Olde Bar.

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Chef Stephanie Bender is the owner of Seoul Chikin, an Atlanta pop-up specializing in Korean fried chicken, now at Smith’s Olde Bar on Friday nights. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Chef Stephanie Bender is the owner of Seoul Chikin, an Atlanta pop-up specializing in Korean fried chicken, now at Smith’s Olde Bar on Friday nights. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Bender, 30, who lived in Washington, D.C., and Florida before moving to Atlanta, has used her identity to explore and celebrate classic Korean street food — from her mom’s handmade dumplings, filled with beef, pork, glass noodles and tofu (mandu), to a spiral-cut spud served on a stick with garlic Parm, spicy ketchup and fried shallots. That so-called tornado potato has been an Instagram sensation, and is her No. 1 selling item.

While creating such fare has brought her great joy, and a second career, Bender acknowledged that the experience of being half-Korean has been painful, too.

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Seoul Chikin serves Korean street snacks, such as this rabokki (pan-fried rice cakes) and mandu (fried dumplings with beef, pork, tofu, glass noodle and cabbage) at its weekly pop-up. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Seoul Chikin serves Korean street snacks, such as this rabokki (pan-fried rice cakes) and mandu (fried dumplings with beef, pork, tofu, glass noodle and cabbage) at its weekly pop-up. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

“I’ve dealt with a lot of racism when I lived in Korea, but I’ve also dealt with racism here,” she said. “So, I never really felt like I belonged. I’ve had identity issues with, like, who I am, because I’m literally half, and didn’t really feel accepted on either side.”

Perhaps because her culinary repertoire leans toward traditional Korean, Bender said she’s had people question her expertise.

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Seoul Chikin’s yangnyeom wings (shown with pickled radish and a side of garlic Kewpie slaw) are available at Smith’s Olde Bar on Fridays. Courtesy of Seoul Chikin
Seoul Chikin’s yangnyeom wings (shown with pickled radish and a side of garlic Kewpie slaw) are available at Smith’s Olde Bar on Fridays. Courtesy of Seoul Chikin

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“I’ve gotten a lot of microaggressions, from Koreans especially,” Bender said. “They are saying, ‘You are not Korean.’ Or, ' You are not Korean enough.’ I always feel like I have to validate myself and tell people I was raised there. I am fluent in the language, which is something I shouldn’t really have to say, with everything that’s going on lately.”

Though she had begun to speak out against Asian hate before the March spa shootings that claimed the lives of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta, she recently has felt compelled to raise the volume.

“I think I’m in a unique position, too, to be able to call out people on both sides,” said Bender, who has worked as a marketing consulting for a good chunk of her career. “I think that’s needed, because it’s not always easy, as someone 100 percent one race, to call out the other race. It’s uncomfortable. I feel like I can be a little more louder about that.”

Seoul Chikin’s tornado potato, a spiral-cut spud on a stick, is the pop-up’s No. 1 seller. Courtesy of @euginoms
Seoul Chikin’s tornado potato, a spiral-cut spud on a stick, is the pop-up’s No. 1 seller. Courtesy of @euginoms

Credit: @aeuginoms

Credit: @aeuginoms

On April 11, she was one of 17 Atlanta-based Asian chefs to participate in a sold-out grazing-box benefit, to raise money for families of the spa-shooting victims. She said that, although she felt a little funny being the only half-Asian on the project, she was warmly embraced by her peers, and was grateful for the opportunity.

On the Seoul Chikin Instagram profile, Bender describes her business as “proudly female + Korean owned.” And, the pride is evident in the food: She spears her chicken with toothpicks bearing a tiny South Korean flag.

Though growing up in two cultures had its challenges, Bender has found community and camaraderie in the city’s diverse food scene. And, if you venture out to try her pop-ups at Smith’s Olde Bar, you can feel the love and affection she invests in honoring the food of her mother’s homeland.

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

A $29 platter from Seoul Chikin gets you wings, nuggets, two sides and a bite — enough food for two people to share. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A $29 platter from Seoul Chikin gets you wings, nuggets, two sides and a bite — enough food for two people to share. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

SEOUL CHIKIN

Menu: Korean fried chicken and street snacks

Alcohol: yes

What I ordered: mandu (fried dumplings); rabokki (pan-fried rice cakes); chikin platter with slaw, rice balls and a tornado potato; wings with yangnyeom sauce. Of the two chicken sauces — signature (sweet-and-spicy soy) and yangnyeom (a tangy hot version with gochujang) — I liked the signature better. I also loved the dumplings. Interestingly, chef Stephanie Bender attributes the mandu and the signature sauce recipes to her mom’s family. The tornado potato is a must-try, but it likely will be better if you eat it on the spot. I look forward to going back and enjoying some wings with a cold one.

Service options: order in person or online via Smith’s Olde Bar website; dine-in or takeout available; no delivery

Outdoor dining: yes

Mask policy: requested, unless you are eating

Address, phone: 1578 Piedmont Ave. NE, Atlanta; 404-875-1522

Hours: 3-10 p.m. Fridays

Website: seoulchikinatl.com

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