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When you bite into the Southern-Korean double-fried chicken at Mukja, restaurant co-owners Peter Chung and Sean Chang want you to taste the story behind it. It’s a story full of struggle, triumph, and identity.
“When you bite into that first piece of chicken, we want you to feel what we felt,” Chung said in an interview with What Now Atlanta. “You can taste the struggle, you can taste the victory. You can taste it all and have it all make sense to you.”
Yet, at its core, this story is about two friends.
Despite going to different high schools around Atlanta, Chung and Chang were close friends in high school who grew apart in college. Chung went to Georgia Tech and Chang, an aspiring chef, attended the University of Georgia. While in college, Chang was involved in a car accident while driving home. It left him paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair.
When Chung visited Chang in the hospital, Chang mentioned that he was transferring to Georgia State University because UGA was too hilly to navigate in a wheelchair. Now that they were both going to school in the city, the pair agreed to get an apartment.
“Every single day, this guy would just be cooking food,” Chung said. “He’s always been really gifted at cooking, naturally gifted. He can take whatever’s in your fridge and make something really gourmet out of it.”
Chang started feeding the friends that would drop by their apartment to positive responses. At this time, he was also trying to break into the culinary world, applying to jobs for anyone who would listen to him. He just wanted to be in a kitchen.
“Unfortunately, 99 percent of the people turned him down,” Chung said. “It was a very dark time for him, because he felt like he could never achieve his dream anymore because of his injury.”
That’s when the pair decided to move beyond just feeding their friends and open their own restaurant. “If no one’s going to provide a path for us, we’ll just pave our own way,” Chung said.
So the pair started testing recipes and refining their food until they came across “what we think is the holy grail of Korean fried chicken,” Chung said. Wanting to move away from the negative connotations that comes with “fusion,” Chung describes their fried chicken as a “marriage between Southern cuisine and authentic Korean food,” reflective of their upbringings.
Many Korean Americans, like Chung and Chang, can feel stuck in between two cultural identities. They’re not Korean enough for Koreans, but they’re too Korean for Americans.
“You kind of get in this weird middle ground where neither side fully accepts you,” Chung said. “So you kind of have to make your own culture. I think the Korean American subculture is very prominent and deserves a voice.”
This Korean American subculture is evident in Mukja’s menu items, like their kimchi and bacon mac and cheese or the savory scallion jalapeno waffle in their chicken and waffles. These items are meant to have an element of familiarity for non-Koreans while remaining true to the traditional flavors that make up Korean cuisine, like gochujang.
This idea also carries over to the restaurant’s design. The decor in the 2,700-square-foot space balances its Korean identity with its Atlanta setting. A black and white mural covers an entire mural, featuring prominent Atlanta features such as the Fox Theater and the Coca-Cola logo. The Korean characters for Mukja in red sit in the center of the mural with its translation “let’s eat,” underneath in blue. All the colors — black, white, red, blue — combine to resemble the Korean flag.
A “gallery wall,” features photos of Chang and Chung’s story in founding the restaurant and the evolution of Mukja from apartment-cooked fried chicken to a restaurant in Midtown. With this, the pair also envisions a polaroid wall where the owners can display pictures they take with their guests.
“We’re going to be the ones serving our guests,” Chung said. “We want this to be a local, organic, homegrown brand. We want this to be born and raised here in Atlanta. You see the owner on the wall, working in the kitchen kind of thing, very down to earth.”
The restaurant was also designed for people with disabilities, with lowered seating and countertops for people to order. Unfortunately, while raising funds or the restaurant, the pair weren’t able to raise enough money to create a kitchen that allows Chang to cook. Instead, he will be managing operations in the front of the house.
“The reason Sean enjoys cooking is because he likes seeing people bite into something and he likes seeing their eyes light up,” Chung said. “So he doesn’t necessarily have to be the one creating if someone else is making it to the exacting standards that he wants. If someone tries it and loves it, he experiences the same satisfaction as if he had made it himself.”
When the pair were developing Mukja, they aimed to create a restaurant equal parts Southern and equal parts Korean.
“On one end of the spectrum, you have a really pure Korean chicken place, and on the other hand, you have like a Hattie B’s pure Southern chicken place,” Chung said. “We’re directly in the middle.”
Mukja’s opening also speaks to a rise in popularity for Korean fried chicken. Chung says he and Chang observed that Korean food trends that explode in New York and Los Angeles often come to Atlanta and Virginia next.
“We’re seeing in LA and New York that Korean fried chicken places were going crazy. They were blowing up,” he said. “What we found was that there’s no Korean fried chicken places in the perimeter of Atlanta. So what we wanted to do was be the first to take over that market share.”
Yet, when they pitched their idea to landlords, they were faced with constant rejection. “At the verge of giving up on this idea altogether, finally someone said ‘yes, this might be a good idea,” Chung said. Shortly after, they were moved into the space formerly occupied by BurgerIM.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus presents one more challenge they need to overcome. Mukja is ready to open but lacks the licenses needed to operate. With Atlanta City Hall shut down due to the coronavirus, Mukja’s opening date is entirely dependent on City Hall opening again.
With all the challenges they have already overcome, the pair plans to open Mukja in the fall. It serves as a monument to the pair’s perseverance.
“We really wanted that story to come to the forefront and be more than just a restaurant. We want it to be a message to people,” Chung said. “No matter what happens, you have good friends, you have the mindset, you can achieve anything. Nothing is out of your reach.”