In Seoul, “there’s a bakery on every block,” says Sarah Park, who was born in the South Korean capital. Its traditional architecture emphasizing community spaces, Korea has a strong cafe culture, Park says: Today, in densely populated areas with lots of high-rises, the common space is the coffee shop.
Gwinnett County doesn’t have quite the concentration of cafes as Seoul—but it’s getting there. Immigrants settling around Buford Highway in the latter half of the 20th century, drawn by work and affordable housing, gradually made their way northeast along the corridor into Gwinnett, which was more than 90 percent white in 1980; today, it’s one of the most diverse counties in the Southeast. Of the 150,000 or so Korean Americans living in Georgia, about a third live in Gwinnett.
A community-engagement coordinator with Gwinnett County government and president of the Korean American Coalition of Metro Atlanta, Park helped coin the county’s nickname: the Seoul of the South, referring to the vibrant array of Korean businesses that have opened there. The area around Pleasant Hill Road in Duluth, near the mostly empty husk of Gwinnett Place Mall, is famous for its Korean restaurants—9292 Korean BBQ, Jang Su Jang—but also boasts an astonishing number of Korean and other Asian bakeries and tea houses: Vincent, Paris Baguette, Ding Tea, Möge Tee, Tiger Sugar, Kung Fu Tea, Cafe Mozart, Sweet Hut, White Windmill, Gong Cha. “New bakeries are popping up everywhere,” says Park, who has guided the tourism bureau’s food tour of the area since 2015.
On the menu: everyday Korean snacks like coffee buns and soboro-ppang, a sweet bread with a crunchy peanut topping (Tree Story makes a great version); whimsically decorated cakes like you’ll find at Hansel and Gretel Bakery; artful confections like the bejeweled macarons at Mac Lab; and dramatic desserts like bingsu (shaved ice or milk with a plethora of toppings) and honey toast—hollowed-out milk bread (or stacked pieces) piled with fruit, ice cream, and the like. The Coffee by Hand serves a particularly mountainous bingsu; Snowflake Tea House specializes in Jenga-like plates of honey toast. Do not endeavor to eat one of these massive treats alone.
Bingsu is Park’s favorite dessert; she also recommends the chewy rice cakes—flavored with ingredients like jujubes, chestnuts, and mung beans—at Nak Won Sweet Rice Cafe. Plus, she says: “The coffee at Korean bakeries, hands down, is way better than major joints like Starbucks.”
This article appears in our February 2022 issue.