Atlanta pop-ups Jackalope and TKO tap into owners’ Asian roots

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

When Dave Mouche phoned his Thai mom to tell her he was making green papaya salad at a Seattle restaurant, she had to laugh to keep from crying. She told him she used to get up at 4 a.m. to help her mother make som tam, to sell at the family’s food stall in Bangkok. She said she got an education, moved to the U.S. and became a schoolteacher so she, and her children, could have a better life.

“And here you are, you leave your cushy job in an office with an air-conditioner to make som tam,” Mouche quotes his mother as saying. She was referring to his decision, in 2013, to leave the tech industry to become a chef.

Mouche, who moved from Seattle to Atlanta after the pandemic upended his second career, believes the food he crafts at his Jackalope pop-up is a way of commenting on his dual identity, as a Houston-born son of an immigrant mother and a white father.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“Letting go of that strict idea of belonging to a singular culture is what informs our food,” said Mouche, 32, who worked as a part-time prep cook at Talat Market before going solo in Atlanta’s close-knit pop-up community.

“That’s why I chose Jackalope as the name,” he said of the mythological creature that’s half rabbit, half antelope. “It’s not either or; it’s clearly a mashup of two cultures.”

Recently, Jackalope became pop-up-in-residence at Dead End Drinks (the former Ration & Dram). Influenced by the flavors of Southeast Asia and the American South, Mouche makes hush puppy-like corn fritters with red curry and lime leaf; Vietnamese-style braised pork belly with grits; and a “papaya Waldorf” that evokes his grandma’s som tam as well as the apple, celery and pecan salad with sweet dressing that Southern grandmas made every year at Christmastime.

There’s also pumpkin curry, a lovely pineapple fried rice, and drinking bites, such as Thai caramel popcorn and a mapo chili hotdog.

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Mouche’s dishes are uniquely his own, but, when it comes to straddling culinary boundaries, he’s got good company in the Atlanta pop-up community.

Nearby, at Full Commission in Grant Park, Lino Yi, chef-owner of the pop-up TKO, builds playful dishes that combine his Korean roots and his American upbringing.

“Growing up, my mother made traditional Korean dinners, which were great, but I always wanted American junk/fast-food like burgers, hotdogs and pizza,” said Yi, explaining that TKO stands for “total knock out” or “the Korean one.”

Yi, a sous-chef at the high-end Lazy Betty for the past 2½ years, launched TKO in April, and has been popping up ever since. While Full Commission is searching for a new chef, owner David Traxler has invited pop-up owners, like Yi, to take over the kitchen.

You can find Yi and his bulgogi hoagies and Korean fried chicken nuggets at Full Commission on Wednesdays and Thursdays through October. He also is planning a Halloween-themed menu of hot dishes for Oct. 30.

After trying Mouche and Yi’s food over the weekend, I’m here to recommend them, and to applaud Full Commission and Dead End Drinks for giving space to these two promising chefs, among others.

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

The way Traxler sees it, it’s a win-win. “Our regular customers are loving it,” he said, “and we get to work with super-professional, talented chefs.”

Most of them, he pointed out, dream of owning their own restaurant, and he can relate. A former IT salesman, Traxler encountered many challenges before opening his restaurant in 2018.

Yi, 36, is in discussions with Southern Feed Store, a small food hall coming to East Atlanta Village. “Hopefully, TKO can start serving to-go lunch, dinner and late-night soon,” he said.

I hope that his menu will include TKO’s kimchi fried rice, which is crisped on the griddle with cheese and egg, and topped with scallions and condiments, a sort of scattered, smothered and covered treatment. I inhaled the dish. I also dug TKO’s Volcano Dog, a beef weenie dressed up with sushi-roll sizzle. This clever dog is fried, topped with imitation-crab salad, torched, then drizzled with spicy mayo, eel sauce and Sriracha.

In tapping into their Asian roots, Jackalope and TKO have found an enthusiastic local following. In Yi’s case, it probably doesn’t hurt that he also has been known to work the room offering shots of shochu.

Jackalope. Open-ended residency at Dead End Drinks, 130 Arizona Ave. NE, Atlanta. 678-974-8380. For updates and menus:

TKO. Wednesdays-Thursdays in October at Full Commission, 519 Memorial Drive, Atlanta. 404-941-9102. For updates and menus:

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