Sitting down with Chef Allen Suh and the brothers Tim and Danny Song of GAJA Restaurant can seem like an intimidating prospect if there’s no foreknowledge of who they are.
Firstly, the three of them are clad in tattoos. Then there are the men themselves.
Tim, the older of the two brothers, projected a stony countenance and is the definite spokesman for the establishment, brandishing a strong, easygoing voice that never had to speak too loudly. He also had the kind of look that told me that he’d deftly dismiss me if I came offering any nonsense. Danny, his younger brother, seemed the quintessence of punk rock, and it's hard to describe why until you meet him. With a smile that favored the left side of his face and a characteristic to him that I can only describe as sharp, he gave off a nonchalant air, propping an elbow up on the back of his chair as he stared at me and my notebook where I'd written down my questions. And then there was Chef Allen Suh with his stoic demeanor and arm-crossed aloofness. His hat was pulled down low over his eyes, his jaw was taut, and he remained a man of few words initially.
But then I asked them about their restaurant, and the initial impression I had quickly melted away, leaving in its place hearty laughs, articulate answers, and three extraordinarily good friends who were excited to talk about who they were and their story.
A few minutes into the interview, I quickly realized that the conversation had never been about a business; rather, I had been inadvertently asking them questions about their lives. The passion and the fervency with which they spoke about their restaurant was less of an abstract conjuring of answers as it was an overflowing of who they were, and every question I asked about the place was tied to some detail of their lives that came to be manifested in their venture.
The three have longstanding ties to the city — especially its music scene — and it can be argued that they are as much a product of Atlanta as they are ambassadors to it. In fact, Danny only looks the part of a punk rock band because he’d been a part of one. Although they’d lived in other cities such as Chicago and New York, the three couldn’t stay away for too long, and all of them came back to the city they called home, eventually leading them to enter into conversations about contributing to the city together.
Even their origin story was less about a business venture as it was just about three friends doing what they loved to do. They told me that all of this started from late night conversations over drinks as any other group of friends would have. What set them apart was that, slowly, their wistful talks eventually began to turn seriously to logistics and details until, one day, they set out to accomplish it.
With their vision formed, they tested the waters, most notably by serving Jook (Korean porridge) at Mother Bar to gauge the community’s response to Korean cuisine. As it was a hit and they received an outpouring of positive feedback, they went on the scout for a location, and the perfect building presented itself to them in the heart of the East Atlanta Village off of Flat Shoals.
Thus, GAJA was born.
The front of the restaurant is as inconspicuous as can be. And yet, its personality is right in line with the community at large. Besides a small sign above their door, their entrance can be easily missed if you don’t know to look for it, but it’s exactly the reason why the place is a flagship: you’re excited when you find it. It can be described as rustic, perhaps minimalistic, maybe even whimsical, but the initial reaction that I had when I realized that it was the entrance was that I felt that I’d been invited into an eclectic yet exclusive gem of a place, most especially because I’d hoped for Korean cuisine here for so long.
When asked about the community at EAV, it seemed that it was a perfect match with their personalities. They told me that they considered it to be one of the few Atlanta neighborhoods that was still a representation of its locals, as they felt that most other Atlanta neighborhoods are arguably dotted with transients. The EAV itself has a very bohemian feel to it, they said, but the community has a strong support for local businesses. This allowed them to feel a wave of support for their restaurant because, in short, they are locals.
Being a minority, however, had both its advantages and disadvantages. First of all, it should be made clear that there is no presence of Korean cuisine in the East Atlanta Village. GAJA is the first of its kind in the area. With that being said, their biggest hurdle according to them were the critiques that they were getting about not offering a traditionally Korean menu. Reviews that were bent on this often compared the restaurant to those on Buford Highway in Doraville that were much more authentically Korean. With novel dishes such as their Pajun (savory Korean pancakes) served carnival style with powdered sugar, they just didn’t seem to make the cut.
However, these were the folks who’d missed the point. When you meet Tim, Allen, and Danny, “traditional Korean” is the last thing that comes to mind.
When you shake their hands, it’s hard to miss the tattoos that have accrued down to their forearms. When you speak with them, their culture is not just Korean-American; it’s of a minute demographic of Korean-Americans that’s very hard to come by. The kind of punk rock lifestyle that can come with growing up in America rarely shows itself in the Korean community, and so it’s a fascinating development of cultural diffusion. And when you sit in their restaurant and know the vision that they had for GAJA, you realize that they have painstakingly achieved what they’d sought out to do. They weren’t missing the target by not offering traditional Korean cuisine; they’d done exactly what they’d wanted, which was to offer an experience that was likened unto them, growing up in America of immigrant parents, and being a minority within a minority itself. They were unique.
What they sought out to do was to offer a representation of who they were, building a business from the ground up via their individuality, offering what and who they were through their experiences. Allen’s immense culinary skills combined with Danny’s life knowledge and managerial attributes from Argosy, all tied through Tim’s network and front-of-business tactics made the three an absolutely formidable team, and it shows glaringly in the way they run their restaurant.
And for those who came here looking for authentic Korean cuisine — the whole point of GAJA is that there has never been something like this before in Atlanta. They aren’t getting an experience that’s supposed to be reminiscent of the hundreds of other traditional Korean restaurants in the metro Atlanta area; what they’re getting is a completely new taste that has its basis in Korean cuisine. Just like they themselves are a new breed of Americans whose ethnicity is based in Korea.
But as much as the three seemed to have diverted from the traditionally Korean path, their dedication to their craft and the sacrifices that they commit to put forth quality strongly reminded me of a dedication that is often found in first generation Koreans.
To exemplify this, I have to mention that Chef Allen makes his kimchi in house every day. Now that Korean cuisine can be considered a staple in Atlanta, and with dozens of supermarkets where Korean food can be bought, it would have been considerably cheaper and less taxing to just buy their kimchi already jarred. But this wasn’t enough for Chef Allen; he wanted his meals to be complete in its character as only he can prepare them. So he makes his kimchi every. single. day.
On top of this, in the earlier hours of the day before the restaurant opens for dinner, there is an echoing of something hammering away in the kitchen. The reason for the sound is because Chef Allen is also not satisfied with store bought rice cakes for his sweet and spicy “ddukboki” dish; he makes a signature rice cake that has a darker hue to it than the traditional white as he adds other ingredients, including traditional Korean dried seaweed. And it has to be pounded through and through to give it its even texture and a homogenous mixing of the flour, water, and salt that goes in it, and the sheer amount of effort and literal strength put into making it on a daily basis is tantamount to the dedication that he has to his craft.
And all of this, I realized, wasn’t just because they had the customer’s satisfaction in mind; the sense that I got was that this was who they were. Every single inch of the establishment screamed of their personalities, from the décor to the music, the cocktails (consulted by Miles Macquarrie himself of Kimball House — an indication of Tim’s network and local relationships) to the utter commitment to the quality of their food, and all of it meeting at an impressively well-crafted installation of mismatched shelves that showcased artifacts of who they were, the glinting centerpiece of it being their trophy belt from a flag football competition they’d played in together as friends.
Eating at GAJA was an experience that told me that we as Koreans had transcended what we knew to levels that we’re still trying to define. But the very act of defining is in the doing, and Allen, Tim, and Danny are currently in the process of forging that path.
Being a minority in the area also had its advantages, and for them, it all goes back to community. Being locals of East Atlanta afforded them support and love from other locals, but being Asian-Americans in the EAV helped build an even more intimate community of other Asian-American restaurant owners, such as EAV Thai and Sushi and So Ba Vietnamese Restaurant.
When asked about what they wanted to convey to the community of East Atlanta about Korean culture as pioneers of Korean-American business, they told me that they hoped to showcase a new generation of Korean-Americans who were finding their individuality. It rings as true that there is a very narrow idea of success when it comes to Koreans and Korean parents — in line with doctors, lawyers, and engineers — and what Danny, Allen, and Tim hope to show is that we as immigrants and children of immigrants can retain our generation’s individuality and still succeed in a way that draws the map outside of what we know as a culture.
But what they described to me to be their vision is what I think really defines GAJA, and I hope that in the midst of running a business, they never forget it. When asked about what had started it all, what their overarching vision for GAJA had been, they glanced at one another, as friends often do, and gestured to the bar.
They told me that what they wanted was a place where they could sit down as friends to eat the food that they made and drink the drinks that they liked. The moment captured for me the spirit of the place, the core of who they were: three locals who opened a restaurant.
And so they named their restaurant GAJA, Korean for the imperative “Let’s go.”
Rather than a suggestive phrase for steering customers to their place, knowing their relationship and their story conjures up a much different image, an image of three friends who’d grown up together, saw the world differently, and finally found a place: one to call their own.
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