Pop-up restaurant TKO deliciously blends Korean and American cuisine

Chef Lino Yi. (Photo courtesy of TKO)

Korean fried chicken nuggets, kimchi fried rice and volcano hot dogs. A delicious blend of Korean and American street foods is the concept behind the pop-up restaurant TKO, short for “The Korean One.” The founder and chef Lino Yi will soon open a new brick-and-mortar TKO location in East Atlanta at Southern Feedstore. Yi joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about his delicious food venture’s new chapter.

Interview highlights:

How Yi’s love for both American and Korean cuisine blossomed early:

“My parents immigrated here to America. I was first generation, and so I grew up eating both Korean food and American food. My household was usually always Korean food, but when I would go out, I would eat American food, and I kind of liked both, but I always wanted to eat what my American friends were eating. Like, I never had a tuna casserole or biscuits and gravy ’til way later in high school. So I was like, ‘Aw, I really wanna eat this.’ My mom’s like, ‘I don’t know what that is,'” recounted Yi. 

“Even though my Korean speaking is not very good, I can communicate to my parents by cooking Korean dishes, and they’ll enjoy it … They were actually surprised that I can make Korean food. So that’s kind of my way of communicating to my parents, is through my cooking,” said Yi. “My favorite is that [Korean food] is typically served with a soup, and I just love soups, and I remember the first time I really enjoyed my mother’s spicy soft tofu soup. I love spicy foods, but it was just so flavorful — to the point where I started watching her make it, just so I can learn how to make it on my own.”

How the former Lazy Betty chef came up with his own pop-up concept:

“The quality and the craftsmanship of the food is amazing, and they are one of the best restaurants. But a lot of my friends couldn’t afford to eat there. They couldn’t visit me. So I missed hanging out with all my friends. I was like, ‘Well, you know what, let me do these pop-ups with these dishes that I like to make.’ And they’re a lot more affordable and are a lot more approachable. So really it was just an excuse to hang out and feed my friends, so we can spend time together,” Yi said.

“My other friends, we’re all cooks, we’re all servers, and you know, we eat fast food and junk food. So we’re like, ‘Well, let me make something that’s a lot more just casual, and, basically, to our price point.’ But Lazy Betty is like, you have to pass rigorous tests to make the perfect dish, and for me, let’s have a corn dog. Let’s have a burger. So it was a lot easier, a lot more laid-back, and a lot more fun.”

Yi’s original famous — maybe infamous — volcano hot dog:

“Years ago I was working on a … sushi food truck,” recalled Yi. “We were outside of this punk rock bar, and the bar was busy, but we were not busy. And I made this joke, ‘Man, these kids don’t want sushi. These kids want hot dogs and hamburgers.’ So as a joke, I went and bought some hot dogs, and I basically took all the toppings on our volcano roll and put it on a hot dog. I waited for a while, and then someone eventually bought it and then they came back with their friends like, ‘Hey, like that was really good. Can we get more of this hot dog?'”

Yi continued, “I elevated a hot dog, or I have brought sushi down to the level of a hot dog. But seriously, it’s a hot dog, and what I do is, I top it off with this spicy crab salad, then I torch it, then I drizzle eel sauce, sriracha, scallions and sesame seeds and some chili flakes. So when you eat it, your mind is playing tricks on you. You’re like, ‘Well, it’s a hot dog, but it tastes like sushi.'”

TKO will open soon at Southern Feedstore in East Atlanta Village. More information on the restaurant collective where TKO resides can be found at www.sfseav.com.