Heart & Seoul
A plane ticket to Seoul from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport will set you back about $1,400, with 15 hours in the air as you travel more than 7,100 miles. Thanks to Gwinnett County’s ever-growing Korean population (it is the third largest after Los Angeles’s and New York City’s), Atlanta-area visitors and residents can experience Korea’s top cultural exports, such as delicious fare and innovative beauty products, without taking a transcontinental trip.
Intimidated? Don’t be. “Koreans are known for their hospitality, just like Southerners,” says Korean-born Gwinnett resident Sarah Park, who heads up Explore Gwinnett’s Seoul of the South tours (see sidebar). Consider this your guide to exploring Gwinnett’s Little Korea.
Beauty is big in Korea, and there’s no better place to experience a day of beauty than at JeJu Sauna. The 35,000-square-foot jjimjilbang, or bathhouse, is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When you arrive, you’ll be given shorts and a T-shirt to wear while exploring the co-ed areas. Rotate between nine saunas, each with distinct benefits. For instance, the heated pink salt sauna helps flush out impurities and increase circulation, while the Korean jade stones lining another sauna’s walls are thought to soothe arthritis and give a metabolic boost.
Next, step into the gender-segregated areas and strip down to your birthday suit (it’s more comfortable than you’d think since everyone’s doing it!) before showering and soaking in one of the warm jetted pools or steam saunas. Spring for a demandi, or vigorous scrub, during which a mature swimsuit-clad tech uses elbow grease and exfoliating mitts to remove more layers of dead skin than you thought possible. You’ll be in good company: Celebrity chef and Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern has visited with comedian Margaret Cho.
To leverage the world of K-beauty products at home, visit one of the three Aritaum shops scattered throughout Duluth and Suwanee. Korean brands like Laneige, Mamonde, and Iope offer efficacy-based skincare (think sheet masks, peeling serums, collagen eye patches, scrubs, jelly cleansers, and more) and innovative cosmetics. The knowledgeable bilingual staff can answer questions and help clients choose the right fix for their unique needs.
Similarly, though W1sh Beauty also stocks women’s and children’s apparel, accessories, and jewelry, Korean and Japanese beauty supplies and makeup are the main draws. The warehouse-style store is no-frills, but treasures for beauty seekers abound.
If you’ve worked up an appetite, you’re in luck: About one-third of Georgia’s Korean population (estimated to be between 120,000 and 150,000 residents) lives in Gwinnett, so the standard of Korean cuisine is ultra-high. One of Park’s long-established favorites for a traditional family-style experience is Jang Su Jang, where you’ll find bi bim guksu (cold noodles), bossam (pork belly), bulgogi (beef barbecue), and much more. The friendly staff is happy to share their passion for Korea’s cuisine and offer recommendations based on your taste preferences.
With Korean food, the first thing that may come to mind is barbecue. Honey Pig opened in 2007 as one of the first restaurants in the area to leverage the ssot-dduk-kung method of cooking deliciously tender Kurobuta pork and other proteins. The meat is cooked on a bowl-shaped grill (like an upside-down wok) at the table and piled with bean sprouts and kimchi. The ever-popular restaurant has even been featured on the Cooking Channel’s Unique Eats.
To sample the snacks Park grew up loving in South Korea, visit Harue Food & Cafe for comfort food like kimbap, a rolled rice dish that resembles sushi, and donkatsu, breaded pork cutlets fried to golden brown. The big draw is something Park calls “the other KFC,” or Korean fried chicken: ultra-tender, crispy chicken that comes in regular, spicy, or sweet and spicy varieties.
Cafe culture is big in Korea, Park says, since historically, people had courtyards to welcome friends and family to catch up over a cup of tea. As populations boomed and single-family homes were less common, people began to congregate at coffee and tea shops, so in big cities such as Seoul, it’s rare to find a block without one. Gwinnett is similar, with such favorites as Tree Story Bakery & Cafe, Cafe Rothem, and Arte 3 Cafe. Each has its own specialty, such as housemade pastries or drinks such as sweet potato lattes, iced plum tea, and misugaru, a hot or cold drink made with toasted multigrain powder, milk, and honey.
If you find yourself craving a bite even at an odd hour, Duluth’s Seo Ra Beol serves Korean favorites like naengmyeon (cold noodles), galbi (spicy tofu stew), and bibimbap (warm white rice with seasoned vegetables) 24 hours a day. Meanwhile, if you’d prefer to enjoy such delicacies in the comfort of your own home, JS Kitchen by Jang Su Jang offers ready-to-serve dishes and cooking classes in its state-of-the-art kitchen.
Belt It Out
For those looking for evening fun, unleash your inner K-pop star at karaoke. Unlike American karaoke, where you’re expected to sing in a room full of strangers, Korean establishments rent group rooms by the hour—think of them as your own private recording studio. Choose your favorite songs in English or Korean, order snacks and drinks, and sing your heart out into the wee hours of the morning.
At DoReMi Karaoke, guests will find private rooms with plush leather sofas, 52- inch plasma flatscreen TVs, and more than 20,000 songs. Also in Duluth, Agit Karaoke attracts a hip crowd with its graffiti- and pop art-lined walls. Additional spots include Sound of Music Karaoke, Luxor Karaoke, and Karaoke Melody 2.
Now when you drive down any number of main Gwinnett thoroughfares and see as many signs in Korean as English, you can feel confident enough to start building your own bucket list for exploration.
Seoul of the South
If you’d prefer to explore Gwinnett’s myriad Korean treasures with a knowledgeable guide, sign up for a Seoul of the South tour with Park as your guide. The tours, offered to the public since 2016, run on select dates throughout the year and leave the Explore Gwinnett offices in a chauffeur-driven trolley. During the four-hour tour, Park introduces guests to four unique restaurants for a progressive feast of sorts— a bargain for $50 per guest. Along the way, she provides engaging commentary and tidbits about Korean culture. Bonus: Each guest walks away with a robust swag bag full of foodie finds and beauty products to try at home. Learn more.
This article, written by Jennifer Bradley Franklin, originally appeared in Volume IV of Explore Gwinnett Magazine