Drive up and down Buford Highway or around Doraville and Duluth, and you’ll start to notice that Korean bakeries—pushing 20 by last count—practically line the roads. Their vibes range from soothing cafe to late-night hangout, where the Asian-majority clientele includes students hitting the books, elderly couples perusing, and friends of all stripes socializing over espresso drinks and bubble tea. But everyone comes for the same thing: wide tables loaded with baked treats like buttercream buns, milk bread, and chewy rice pastries—all of which are baked daily and individually wrapped in clear plastic.
Korean bakeries can seem like a cultural paradox at first: spongy cakes that look like Swiss rolls or filled croissants that shout “Vive la France!” But it’s no contradiction. Like every cuisine, Korean food takes its cue from world history. The aftermath of war and generations of trade brought Japanese, Chinese, and French influences to the country. The Korean diaspora has led to the ubiquity of bakeries in areas where Koreans have settled. (More than a million Korean-born immigrants now live in the U.S., and their numbers in Georgia have more than doubled since 2000.) “We’ve definitely learned from France and Japan,” says Dong Woo Shin, executive pastry chef at White Windmill, a Korean bakery chain. “But the development is all Korean.”
So is his customer base: Only White Windmill’s Doraville location serves mostly non-Koreans; the other four are virtually all Korean. With that in mind, he features the treats Korean-born Atlantans recognize from their childhoods or travels “to the motherland”: red bean buns, manju pastries, twisted doughnuts dusted with sugar. Notably, most are lighter and less sweet than U.S. or European treats.
But not every bakery is created equal. Some claim to bake their products in-house, but they actually source frozen dough from distribution centers overseas. The difference in quality is remarkable. Here are a few favorites from White Windmill, Tree Story, and Sweet Rice—three bakeries where they’re doing it just right.
2180 Merchants Way, Duluth, 770-476-9303
Sweet Green Bean Bun
Not to be confused with the string or snap bean. Less nutty than its red bean counterpart but just as sweet and rich. $1.79
Chestnut Pastry Bread
Somewhere between a doughnut and challah bread—no remarkable chestnut flavor, but the dough is dreamy. $5.49 for a loaf. a loaf
2550 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth
Black Sesame Rice Doughnut
Bite-sized balls are fried to a light golden brown and dusted with sugar. 40 cents
A popular Lunar New Year treat. Red bean paste, among others, fills this sticky, sweet rice dough dusted with cornstarch. $1
Expect a mild sesame flavor in this chewy rice cake made with nuts and raisins. 54 cents
Multiple locations, including 5881 Buford Highway, Doraville
Sweeter than a samosa but still savory; julienned veggies fill out the airy pastry dredged in breadcrumbs. $3.19
Try the sweet pumpkin filling made with white beans. $3.49 for two
Sweet Potato Pastry
This flaky, buttery treat tastes like a page out of the soul food playbook. $2.49
This article originally appeared in our December 2014 issue.