Remember the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials? The one where the guy is walking down the street eating a chocolate bar and the woman walking towards him is eating peanut butter and they clumsily bump into each other only to discover the ecstasy of combining peanut butter and chocolate? This must have been Tomas Lee’s experience when he first collided the worlds of Korean and Mexican cooking. The result: Hankook Taqueria, a classic hole-in-the-wall located northwest side of Atlanta in Underwood Hills.
Atlanta’s reaction? The same fervent joy as eating a Korean-Mexican Reese’s Cup.
A highly-skilled Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who cooked for 12 years at the venerable Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, Lee applied his considerable cooking prowess to his Mexican-Korean invention when he opened Hankook. “The inspiration came from the versatility of both Korean and Mexican foods,” says Lee. “Taquerias play a special role in the Los Angeles food scene and I felt Atlanta really needed something like that.”
Operating out of a tiny, austere shack with counter service, lines queue up before lunch and stay throughout the day into the evening. Parking, as well as seating, frequently clogs up but somehow even in the heat of the lunchtime rush, the crowds move through with impressive efficiency.
The main building block at Hankook are the tacos: warm flour tortillas enveloping explosively flavorful ingredients like chicken (dak gogi in Korean), pulled pork (dae ji gogi), panko-crusted tilapia (saeng seon) and fried calamari to name a few. Many of the meats are marinated in a spicy, tangy Korean sauce, the fish in a hoisin tartar sauce, giving them an unmistakable Asian flavor. The tacos are dressed in lettuce tossed in a soy sesame vinaigrette with cilantro, lime and Jack cheese. The flour tortillas wrap it all up and act as a launch pad for a fresh, flavorful explosion.
Massive pillow-sized burrito versions of the tacos also exist; the include the same ingredients as the tacos but are also stuffed with a zesty and savory kimchee fried rice. Quite simply: they are like nothing you have tasted before.
Lee also offers a variety of “street snacks,” artful fusions of Korean and Mexican classics including sesame fries tossed in sesame oil and red pepper flakes, a quesadilla with bulgogi (a Korean grilled marinated meat) and the Korean classic, Bibim-bop, a rice dish made with beef, vegetable and topped with a fried egg.
Lee says the Bibim Bop is his “go-to” dish explaining that “rice is fundamental in both Mexican and Korean food allowing you to explore both sides of the coin.”
“We really took two different cultures and tried to represent them in the best way possible. It’s a chef-driven concept that is fast and casual and it isn’t cookie cutter or what people expect.”
Hankook’s inspired recipes have even spread beyond its modest origins into the popular Yumbii food truck and two locations of Takorea (one in midtown and one in Dunwoody) continually bringing this cross-cultural concept to the masses.
But for the real and original experience, jump on Collier Road and head west until you see the modest environs of Hankook Taqueria, truly an Atlanta Eats Hidden Gem.
For more behind-the-scenes knowledge of Hankook Taqueria, check out their Atlanta Eats segment here. And be sure to watch Atlanta Eats every Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on Peachtree TV for more of your favorite Atlanta restaurants!