Cheap Eats - Hankook Taqueria misses the mark

Korean plus Mexican equals fusion confusion on the Westside

Last year, the blogosphere and Twitter exploded with unbridled enthusiasm over the Kogi taco truck in Los Angeles. But Kogi is no ordinary taco truck. It specializes in Korean tacos. Much like the cupcake and haute burger trends, Atlanta soon followed L.A.’s lead with the opening of Hankook Taqueria (1341 Collier Road, 404-352-8881).

Given Atlanta’s vast amount of Korean and Mexican restaurants, the taqueria’s location (on the ethnically-starved Westside) and know-how via owner Tomas Lee, a Buckhead Life alumnus, Hankook seems like the perfect storm. Having all of the right ingredients in place, however, isn’t always a recipe for success.

The atmosphere of Hankook hangs thick with the smell of stale fryer oil. A cluster of tables surrounded by booths with sticky seats are covered with worn plastic tablecloths – a possible holdover from the former establishment.

Most of the food is stored in steam trays where Lee assembles your order. The menu is small – perhaps because Lee is new to Korean cooking. Tacos dominate the choices, but there are also quesadillas, burritos and a “street snack” section with straightforward Korean options.

The tacos come with a variety of fillings. Each is topped with shredded lettuce, green onion and cabbage doused with a tangy sesame vinaigrette, chopped yellow onion, cilantro, a lime wedge and cheddar cheese that appears to be pre-shredded. The “Tubu” (crispy tofu) is flavorless, mushy and there is an underlying taste of stale oil. The fried fish, while fresh tasting, suffers from the same oily affliction. The quality of the “Bul Gogi” beef is too fatty, and each slice is crumpled into a boiled gray mass with no sign of caramelization. It is, however, the most flavorful meat out of the bunch. The inherent fattiness is less noticeable in the burritos, which are filled with all of the taco accoutrements and wrapped along with your choice of meat and kimchee-laced rice. But there’s no getting around the oddly-plastic mouthfeel of this particular brand of flour tortillas.

Fried items from the “street snack” side of menu – such as the man doo (pork dumplings) and puffed-up slabs of Korean sweet potato – are floppy from absorbing too much of the aforementioned stale-tasting oil while cooking. The components of the “bibim-bop” (a rice bowl topped with vegetables, beef, a fried egg and spicy sauce) lack punch and textural interest. The pickled vegetables are a little too limp, the beef is left whole rather than being shredded. The requisite spicy sauce lacks enough brightness to bring the dish together. Furthermore, many of the ingredients possess that salty, syrupy and processed intensity you find in store-bought brands. The one saving grace from the snack portion of the menu is the “Chop-Chae” or stir-fried potato noodles. The clear springy noodles are stir-fried then tossed with a tangy dressing made out of sesame oil and soy sauce. They’re a refreshing foil to the gut-bomb nature of much of the menu.

I really expected and wanted to like Hankook, but the product sourcing and haphazard execution dashed my hopes. One may think that serving ethnic food doesn’t necessitate the same amount of investment and skill you’d put towards other cuisines, but that’s not the case. With some better ingredients, a little more research on Korean cuisine and a touch more care, Lee may be able to make this work. As it stands today, Hankook has a long way to come if it hopes to inspire enthusiasm of any kind.