First Look: Takorea

Mexican Korean fusion hits Midtown

In 2008, a food truck in Los Angeles, Kogi, launched a citywide obsession with Korean tacos. Since then, similar trucks have rumbled across America, thrilling the taste buds of fans with a variation on the Mexican fare that has long dominated the street-food scene.

Unfortunately, until recently, getting licensed to operate a food truck in Atlanta was only slightly less complicated than building a nuclear power plant. So, when Tomas Lee, formerly employed by the Buckhead Life chain, decided to bring Korean tacos to Atlanta, he opened Hankook Taqueria (1341 Collier Rd., 404-352-8881) in a brick-and-mortar building that has all the charm of a rural roadside dive but is beloved by legions.

About a year later, Carson Young approached Lee with the idea of supplying the food for a truck that he planned to call Yumbii Far Out Food. Young encountered the usual prohibitions against parking in public streets but became the first to be given liberation to wander freely. Yumbii is wildly popular.

Tomas, who operated a couple of restaurants before Hankook, has now opened Takorea (818 Juniper St., 404-532-1944) in Midtown. It’s located in a building that has not been kind to earlier tenants. Tomas has mainly preserved the kinky décor of the earlier Mexican tenant and duplicated the Hankook menu at only slightly higher prices. A big difference is the presence of a bar. So you’ve got cheap, trendy food and big cocktails.

But there’s a problem with this food from my perspective. Korean tacos have become completely mainstreamed (thus the Midtown location), to the degree that they are on the menu at California Pizza Kitchen and may be bought frozen at Costco. I find the notion of Korean-Mexican fusion compelling but I don’t find the typical result very tasty.

I never even wrote about my first visit to Hankook. I found the tacos there, assembled with ingredients from steam trays, bland, even with the toppings of kimchi and green cabbage tossed in sesame oil. The Mexican influence, with a few exceptions, was limited to the use of tortillas.

This isn’t really just Korean-Mexican fusion. It’s Korean-Mexican-American – meaning it’s toned down for vanilla palates. I was expecting, from the beginning, play with the chili peppers that are important to the flavors in both cuisines. Of course, such food doesn’t have to be “hot” to be good, and, as fusion, it’s entitled to be what it is in each chef’s hands. But, personally, I think it’s a misstep to conclude that the very shy use of chilies doesn’t affect flavor.

Then, too, I admit that when I visited Takorea with three friends, one of them found his burrito, filled with kimchi fried rice and chicken, almost inedibly hot. But when he handed it around the table for tasting, nobody else found it at all hot. I found it bland in every respect. The filler of cabbage even failed to supply any crunch.

I ordered a succulent pork belly taco as a starter. The kimchi, fortified with a shot of hot pepper sauce, elevated the taste. In fact, a side dish of three varieties of kimchi did provide a tongue-tingling tour of hot and sweet flavors. But a straightforward snack of six pork-ginger dumplings was probably the favorite dish on the table, or maybe second to the crispy fries that had been submerged in sesame oil.

The only dish I seriously disliked was bibimbap, the classic Korean bowl of rice topped with hot sauce, meat, mixed veggies and a fried egg. Start with the fact that the egg was way overcooked. Barely a few drops of yolk emerged to bind the dish. I topped my bowl with bulgogi, barbecued beef. But it was nothing like bulgogi, having no char or intense flavor. It was slightly marinated, gray beef chunks that tasted sautéed. (The same stuff appears in the beef taco, but with some barbecue sauce.) I ate half my bowl and pushed it away.

Dessert gained approval all around. The “Fried Elvis Sundae” is a take on the King’s favored peanut butter and banana sandwiches, although, as I recall, he also added bacon to the mix. Picture crispy cinnamon tortillas topped with ice cream and encircled by tempura bananas, drizzled with this and that. I actually preferred the bread pudding made of churros with hot chocolate sauce, but I’d eat either again.

In order to give myself some perspective, I did feel like I needed to return to Hankook to see if things had changed in the last two years. Nope. The steam trays are still in use. I ordered one taco, a special, made with fried chicken and another made with fried shrimp and “hoisin tartar sauce.” No oomph, but, at $2.25 each, I’m loathe to complain.

Finally, I forced myself – in view of the new mania for hot dogs – to try the restaurant’s “fire dog,” an “all beef, spicy hot dog topped with green cabbage kimchi,” also on the Takorea menu. I ate half of it. There was nothing the least bit spicy-hot. That kind of sums up all the food: If you wish you were an Oscar Mayer wiener you’d need to be pretty bland for everyone to be in love with you.

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