Tucked back in a parking lot off Flat Shoals Avenue in East Atlanta Village is a door with a small square window. It would qualify as unmarked if it weren’t painted, along with the brick wall around it, the most striking shade of sea foam green you’ve ever seen.
If I had to guess what hid behind it, I’d say maybe a purveyor of pipes for, uh, “recreational tobacco use,” or the world headquarters of a very obscure record label. In fact, this is Gaja, a new Korean restaurant helmed by chef Allen Suh.
This strip of Flat Shoals is not a neighborhood of formality and tradition, unless the tradition is ordering beer-and-shot combos and listening to a band play so loud that your eardrums ring for days.
So, it is fitting that Gaja is perhaps the most irreverent of all Korean restaurants in Atlanta, uninterested in convention or even making much sense. Like the neighborhood, I think it also is a whole lot of fun. Of course, I would.
By that, I mean there’s a certain kind of person who enjoys silly food jokes, like the intentionally awkward menu grammar that describes drinks as “Unique taste!” or “Made in the house” rice cakes, along with esoteric punk references and playful Korean dishes.
I’ll admit to being among that number, but does anyone else care that the T.V. Rye, a black sesame spiked cocktail of scotch and rye, is a play on the Stooges song “T.V. Eye”? Or that the Sonic Reviver No. 2 sounds a whole lot like a Corpse Reviver No. 2 cocktail crossed with the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer”? And that the traditional-looking banners on the walls are actually Ramones lyrics translated into Korean? If they do, I have to assume they haunt East Atlanta Village.
So, do at Gaja as you normally would in EAV. They’ll serve you a can of Hite and a big shot of chilled sochu, a distilled Korean spirit similar to vodka, for 6 bucks. You can combine the two, as is the style in Korea, but I’m happy shooting the sochu and sipping the Hite, just as I would a PBR and bourbon across the street at the Earl.
Unlike many Korean restaurants, Gaja doesn’t drop banchan, those ramekins of tiny snacks, on the table when you sit down, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of things to keep your fingers busy while you sip a drink. One night, the bartender offered us a cup of fishy rice cakes and dried squid jerky, a little combo sourced from bags in the snack aisle of a Korean grocer. Another night, I ordered the anchovy and peanut brittle, which is kind of a riff on Korean anchovy brittle, but is mostly just good old-fashioned American peanut brittle with a nice salty edge to it.
This is either/or food. You’re either like the lady sitting next to me at the bar who got so excited when I ordered the anchovy brittle that I couldn’t help but share it with her, or you’re like my buddy who showed up a minute later, twisted his face into an expression of utter confusion, and said, “Nah, I’ll be alright.”
I think by this point you probably already know which side of that line you’re on. Me, I love the sticky soft rice cakes doused in heaps of sweet and spicy gochujang sauce and runny egg. Chewy chicken gizzards with tasty Anaheim peppers? Yeah, buddy. Cold boiled pork belly wrapped in romaine and dripped with “salted shrimp condiment”? Sure, that’s pretty good, too.
I can also understand how the words “cold boiled pork belly” are enough to send someone running in the opposite direction.
The closest things to broad crowd pleasers here are the entrees, which come served on aluminum cafeteria-style trays, with little dividers at the top for house made kimchee, small portions of banchan and saucy meats over rice.
The fried chicken is doused in enough sticky sauce to make General Tso proud and sober up anyone who was overserved at a bar down the street. The short rib is equally heavy and satisfying, though the scallion-rich sauce is thankfully more reserved. I do wish those hunks of short rib were more consistently tender, though.
That’s the rub at Gaja, though. This place is more about fun than tenderness, more irreverence than reverence. In East Atlanta, Gaja fits right in.
6 p.m.-midnight Tuesdays-Sundays. 491 Flat Shoals Ave., Atlanta. 404-835-2126, gajaeav.com.