Growing up Korean in the American South, Peter Chung and Sean Chang felt like they had dual identities.
“We weren’t quite Korean enough for Koreans, and not fully American enough for Americans,” Chung said.
When the pair decided to open a restaurant, they wanted that duality to factor into their dining concept.
Set to open in the next few weeks in the heart of Midtown, Mukja – which means “Let’s Eat” in Korean – will be a celebration of Korean and American food, from the Korean spices used to jazz up fried chicken to the waffles dotted with garlic, jalapeno and garlic and served with honey butter.
“The scenario is the best of both worlds,” Chung said. “We say it’s twice as nice, because of that mixing and mingling of cultures.”
The project is also a celebration of Chung and Chang’s friendship. The two met on a church retreat in high school but became close in college, especially after Chang, a student at University of Georgia, was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Chang soon transferred to Georgia State University and the pair leased an apartment together. An avid cook, Chang found it difficult after the accident to secure a job in the restaurant industry, and Chung, who had worked mostly front-of-house restaurant jobs, had become disillusioned with what he called the “really fake” parts of the industry.
Several years ago, they began considering opening their own place and about a year ago, the men – both in their early 20s – began looking for spaces to launch their project.
After searching for a space for nine months, Chung and Chang settled on 933 Peachtree St. NE, formerly occupied by burger eatery Burgerim. Two months after signing the lease, and with sights set on a May opening, the pandemic hit.
“You think you’re going full-steam ahead, and then – bam! – the pandemic smacks us in the face,” Chung said. “We had planned so thoroughly how we were going to open, and all of those plans crumbled. But we were already all in, so we said, ‘Ready or not, we have to open.'”
Because takeout and delivery were initially part of the service model for Mukja, Chung surmises that the economic effects of the coronavirus won’t impact their business plan as much as it might have otherwise.
The restaurant’s tight menu is also tailor-made for lean pandemic times. Main dishes include a quarter, half or whole fried chicken, wings served with pickled radish (“an homage to our roots,” Chung said), a chicken sandwich topped with comeback sauce and pickled veggies, and a Mukja Bowl made with grilled chicken, rice, veggies and gochujang.
Sides include a scallion-garlic waffle, Korean slaw, and mac and cheese holding the flavors of kimchi, bacon and smoked gouda cheese.
Beverages will include imported Korean and Japanese beers, as well as local craft brews.
The 50-seat space will seat less than half that due to COVID-19 guidelines. Dine-in patrons will be greeted by a mural that’s a love letter to Atlanta, featuring 2 Chainz’s Pink Trap House, the Fox Theatre and the Coca-Cola logo.
The pair is cautiously optimistic about opening Mukja during a pandemic. Chung said the Midtown community has been welcoming, and he hopes that Mukja’s food is a big enough hit that expansion becomes a possibility.
In the meantime, Chung and Chang will be content with presenting their vision to Atlanta “in a way that’s unabashedly us,'” he said. “Every decision we make, we made with our values in mind first.”
Mukja will be open from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays.
933 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-855-5516, mukjaatl.com/
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