From BlackBerrys to iPods, handheld technologies are all the rage, and the analog world of culinary trends appears to be following suit. Restaurateurs are kicking cutlery to the curb in favor of finger-friendly edibles such as paletas and tacos. The latest of these forkless feasts to arrive in Nashville is the succinct menu at Peter Chinn's Korean BBQ Taco drive-through, which offers a concise array of handheld items that you can count on two hands.
Located near the intersection of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Clarksville Pike, Peter Chinn's is the month-old enterprise of Heritage Cleaners operator Joong Feo and veteran chef Peter Chinn, who teamed up to import the popular West Coast fusion concept of Korean barbecue tacos.
Inside the 900-square-foot building, everything is prepared fresh, including the galbi (beef short rib) used in the signature kogi taco. "You judge how good a Korean restaurant is by how good they make the galbi," explains Feo. Peter Chinn's galbi starts with a marinade made from short rib bones, soy sauce, garlic and onions. After the beef tenderizes in the sweet stock, it is flame-grilled, then piled onto two soft corn tortillas with shredded lettuce, chopped pink onion and thinly sliced cucumbers pickled in-house. (The tangy pickle disks adorn the majority of Peter Chinn's tacos, recalling the delicate appetizers known as banchan that traditionally precede a Korean meal.)
If galbi measures the quality of a Korean restaurant, the kogi taco is a flattering metric for this no-nonsense eatery. And if the sweet, tender beef recalls a familiar taste, it might be because the owners get a little culinary encouragement from Feo's in-laws — Aeja and Young Ko — who owned and operated the acclaimed Arirang Korean restaurant on West End Avenue, in the space now occupied by Hotel Indigo.
"My mother-in-law has been very helpful," Feo says. Aeja Ko also makes the fermented cabbage used in the kimchi quesadilla. The traditional recipe involves soaking Napa cabbage in salt water for several hours, then mixing it with pepper powder and paste and allowing it to ferment for several days.
"When it comes to making kimchi, you have to do what your elders tell you," Feo explains with a hint of humor. The result is a red-tinged, wilted cabbage whose spicy tang is tempered by melted mozzarella and jack cheese on a grilled flour tortilla. Our table pronounced the kimchi quesadilla a good item for sharing, a euphemism for "good in small doses."
Like the kogi taco, the chicken taco burst with tender flame-grilled meat infused with the sweet beef-broth marinade, along with the trifecta of shredded lettuce, pink onion and pickled cucumbers.
The illustration of a red pepper on the menu gives fair warning about the heat of the spicy pork taco. Meanwhile, the plastic ramekin of Mexican-chili-inspired hot sauce that accompanies the tacos can ratchet up the heat to a nearly unbearable level. At one point, in a capsaicin-induced panic, we resorted to slurping fresh guacamole out of a tiny plastic cup to soothe the lip-searing burn.
Peter Chinn's adds an admirable specimen to the growing local school of fish tacos, with generous hunks of hand-battered pollock embellished with shredded cabbage and tartar sauce. While leaning more toward Southern Californian than South Korean cuisine, the fish taco makes sense on the roster of fresh handheld wraps. For that matter, even the fried fish sandwich — an incongruously Southern outlier on a menu of West Coast-East Asian fusion — is a worthy component of the short repertoire. The crisp-fried plank of sweet flaky pollock, with cabbage and tartar sauce on a fluffy burger bun, is a welcome variation on the tradition of fried whiting between slices of white bread slathered with yellow mustard.
With little exterior flourish, Peter Chinn's fades into the busy roadscape northwest of Metro Center, but a visit to this truckless taco truck offers a surprisingly welcoming and gracious experience. We toyed with the idea of taking our tacos to go — possibly heading to the Bicentennial Mall for an alfresco feast of Californian-Korean fusion — but hunger won out and we opted to eat beside the parking lot, at round tables with built-in benches. No sooner had we set our food down than a server emerged from the drive-through structure, brandishing a cheerful bright-green sun umbrella. She popped the umbrella into the center of the table, creating an instant shady oasis on the sweltering banks of Clarksville Pike. She asked if we needed anything else and returned with a stack of extra napkins. With our fists clenched around handheld delicacies, we didn't even think to ask for forks — though they're available if you need them.
Peter Chinn's Korean BBQ Taco is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
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