Several miles off of I-40 fin the middle of Tennessee, after passing through the sleepy town center of Kingston Springs and the rural community of Craggie Head, then on over Highway 70, you’ll come across a wood-paneled, former antique furnishings store in White Bluff, parts of which were once a mill dating back to the late 1800s. The thing that sets this apart from any other roadside, tin-roofed shop is a bright orange, medallion insignia showcasing a tiger’s face on the side of the building and a lettered sign on the roadside reading: Fat Tiger Korean BBQ. Open. Hot Korean. Food Comas.(Smiley face.)
Inside, the bones of the original building remain, including a post where a mule was once tied to operate the sugarcane mill. An ancient Vulcan stove is set against one wall—on top sits a self-serve soda machine. A collection of ancient strainers hangs nearby and there’s a display of carved wooden rocking chairs in one corner.It all feels a little like a stripped-down Cracker Barrel.
And yet, the food that’s coming out of the shotgun kitchen—comforting, homestyle Korean dishes, all for less than about $18—ordered at the counter and then served on plastic trays, rivals anything you’ll find just thirty miles down the road in downtown Nashville.
Opened by Starrlite DeCook and David Mullins in late fall 2021, Fat Tiger Korean BBQ has downtowners making the trek out to Dickson County, but more importantly, it’s become a hub for hungry locals.
“Everybody wants to know what you’re doing in a small town,” DeCook says.
“And I say that in a good way, because there are such limited food options. So, when you open a restaurant, everybody comes and checks you out.” And that Cracker Barrel-esque aesthetic? Purely intentional, she says, “because we’re bringing something completely new and unfamiliar to the area. Dickson County isn’t known for having a diverse food scene. So, we love the fact that at least the atmosphere is approachable and familiar.”
Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, DeCook has adapted many of her grandmother’s recipes for Fat Tiger’s menu.The jaeyook bokkeum (spicy pork) is the same DeCook grew up eating, slathered in a fiery wet rub made up of nearly a dozen ingredients, sliced thin, handset beside a pile of rice. The banchan, side dish portions of “things that go with rice,” changes regularly but there’s always kimchi, sometimes a zucchini salad, and marinated eggplant.
DeCook does not tone down the spice. LA galbi, or Korean barbecue-style short ribs, are another house specialty—marinated for forty-eight hours then sizzled on a barbecue grill, that’s the dish that pushed the two into opening a restaurant in the first place.
DeCook and Mullins met while DeCook was working at a food logistics company and living in Chicago. Though she’d never worked in restaurants directly (she previously worked as a beer rep), Mullinshad and the two saw a big opportunity in White Bluff. “There was a complete drought of any ethnic food—real ethnic food—in this area,” DeCooksays. The two married and DeCook moved down in 2019. Her father came to visit around the same time and DeCook served him the forty-eight-hour marinated short ribs. “He said, ‘You make this better than any Korean restaurant. You guys have something special.’ And, you know, my dad is white, but he spent thirty years in Korea, so I call him an honorary Korean. He knows good Korean food,” she says.
While most of the menu at Fat Tiger Korean BBQ is authentic to what DeCook grew up eating—she calls it “unapologetically authentic,” noting, “I’m not going to dumb anything down”—there’s at least one Americanized dish: the loaded fries. You’ll often find them two different ways on the menu: One stop with thin-sliced bulgogi and smothered in a blend of cheeses and dollops of aïoli; the other changes but might get piled up with mozzarella, pork stew, kimchi, a sunny side-up egg, and gochujang aïoli for the ultimate coma-inducing bar snack. “No matter what spectrum of adventure people are on, they’ll eat the loaded fries. Because how bad can it be? It’s fries,” DeCook says with a smile.
But there are a dozen other reasons to visit, too, like the spicy beef and radish soup (fan favorite of at least a few Nashville-area chefs) and the Korean fried chicken. DeCook’s slow-cooked kimchi and pork (kimchi-jjim) and loaded homestyle bibimbap stand up against anything you’ll find downtown. In a nod to modern Korean street foods, they sometimes put a Korean-style street toast on as a special—the thick slice of grilled texas toast might be layered with a veggie omelet, fried ham, and a sweet-sour strawberry ketchup. To go with all that goodness, thanks to DeCook’s background in the beer world, the selection of beers here is impressively vast, with more than thirty options on hand ranging from fruited sours and IPAs to quality Belgian ales.
And while it’s Mullins and another white cook doing the work in the kitchen, DeCook has the team trained to execute her recipes exactly as she remembers them. DeCook herself, who still has a day job, often floats from the back of the house to the front, where she can be found taking orders because, she says, “You’d be surprised how many people walk in and say, ‘where’s the Korean?’
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by Jenn Rice