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A Korean Pop-Up Goes Brick & Mortar in Atlanta

Photo: Colette Collins
Photo: Colette Collins

One could say Atlanta’s restaurant TKO grew out of Chef Lino Yi’s desire to see his friends during the pandemic. You could also say his brick and mortar spot, which opened in December 2022, grew out of the popularity of the pop-up scene in Atlanta.

Before launching TKO as a pop-up in April 2021, Yi was a sous chef at Lazy Betty, a high-concept restaurant in the Candler Park area of the city. During the pandemic, when his coworkers got too busy, they asked Yi to operate a pop-up at night when he was free.

“The first one I did was at Ration & Dram [now Dead End Drinks],” he said. “It was still during the pandemic and it was an excuse for my friends to all hang out together. That was one of the main drives. Cooking food, and I missed hanging out with my friends.”

Yi would go on to host pop-ups at other Georgia restaurants such as Woodward & Park, Full Commission, Buteco, Georgia Beer Garden, Eventide Brewing, Outrun Brewing Company, and Round Trip Brewing Company. When he started, Yi was doing the pop-ups under his name, Chef Lino, but he always knew if he opened a brick and mortar spot, it would be called TKO.

Photo: TKO

“TKO stands for ‘The Korean One,’ but most people refer to it as ‘Total Knock Out,'” he said. “The inspiration was that it sounds like Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art, so it was like the food and flavors [are going to] knock you out. Also, people would always ask, ‘Which one is your pop-up’ and I was like, ‘Well, it’s the Korean One.’”

Yi’s concept was to take something familiar and make it foreign, or take something foreign and make it familiar. “I’m Korean, but I was born in America and I grew up eating Korean food, but I always loved American fast food,” he said. “For me, TKO is a happy medium of both. I will play with your palate. Then I will change your mind on certain things and challenge them. I want to respect traditional things, but there are more modern, up-to-date techniques and recipes.”

TKO’s menu features Korean street food items such as Panko fried hot dogs, burgers, chicken nuggets, kimchi fried rice, and more – with Yi constantly experimenting with specials to excite guests. Not only does this allow him to be creative in the kitchen, but his price points allow him to cultivate a space that emphasizes family, friends and community.

Photo: Colette Collins

“My favorite line from the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is ‘No man is a failure who has friends,’ and I’ve always lived that mantra,” he said “My friends make me feel successful. All my friends are cooks and servers, so I thought, let me make something that’s delicious, but also really affordable so that when you get off work, you can come by and I can feed you for ten dollars.”

Yi is quick to point out, too, the importance of generations of Korean and American culture and the traditions of his family, who have always supported him.

“For people like myself who were born in America and can’t travel back to Korea, this is a presentation of melding both cultures,” he said. “My family are very generous people. They worked hard, they do a lot of community service, and I’m trying to tie that in. I’ve been very blessed. We did a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood for Valentine’s Day, and for my birthday we gave out free soup and tried to raise money for The Giving Kitchen. I want to give back more to my community. Those are the values and traditions my parents instilled in me.”


Allanah Dykes

Allanah Dykes is a freelance writer whose niche is home decor and food, but she has written in almost every field from mental health to political op-eds. Her favorite pastimes are listening to Biggie and Bach and enjoying New York Italian ices and slices


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