In Dallas, Texas, Korean American bartender-turned-cart owner Sunny Hatch had a largely Western upbringing, a common tale for children of immigrants who choose to immerse their families in American culture as a means of survival. “It didn’t feel safe to be Asian,” Hatch says. “I feel like a lot of hapas that I meet tell me the same thing — that their parents wanted them to be super Western. They don’t know the language, they didn’t really eat any of their cultural food, things like that.”
Growing up, Korean food was one of the only connections Hatch had to his heritage. He’d eat Hungry Man TV dinners alongside rice with kimchi and dried squid, and make Korean American mashups like rice topped with American cheese and furikake or tteokbokki with bacon. It was an edible reflection of his lived experience, balancing his Southern upbringing with his Korean American identity.
In certain ways, that’s what Hatch continues to do at Frybaby, his new food cart dedicated to Korean fried chicken in the Lil’ America cart pod. The chef fries wings and dunks them in sauces like spicy gochujang and soy garlic snow cheese, served alongside Korean American sides like bo ssam collard greens and mashed potatoes with curry gravy. But beyond the food that hits takeout containers, Frybaby has been Hatch’s way of connecting to, and exploring, his culture — even before it opened.
After moving to Portland some 16 years ago, Hatch kept thinking to himself, “I wish there was at least one more Korean restaurant in Portland proper.” He was used to Dallas’s sizable Korean food scene, whereas now he had to venture to Beaverton for bulgogi or banchan. During Hatch’s decade-long stint as a bartender, he messaged Han Ly Hwang of Kim Jong Grillin seeking advice, and took a small business class at Mercy Corps. Going into full R&D mode, Hatch traveled to Korea for the first time, visiting Seoul, Busan, and Jeonju on a 10-day trip. His goal: to eat. Ideally, four meals a day. One of the first things he ate on the trip was Korean fried chicken, his first time trying the dish. He was hooked.
When he got home, he decided that KFC was going to be the focus of his business, but with some additional personal touches. “I realized that if I really wanted to represent myself, it would have to be sort of Southern, too,” Hatch says. “That’s mostly what I grew up eating, Southern fried chicken. [There] were a lot of collard greens, crawfish boils, stuff like that. I kind of wanted to mix the two together, and the more I thought about it, the more the flavors do match up.”
A deep dive on Korean fried chicken ensued. Hatch watched videos, read books, talked to folks on the internet, and even cold-called restaurants asking if they would give him any information. After countless test batches and research, he eventually landed on a recipe involving a rice, potato, and tapioca flour batter with vodka and makgeolli. The chicken gets a double-fry before getting dunked in sauce, to ensure crispy crunch. For Hatch, crunch is key; it’s a credo he picked up from YouTuber and author Maangchi.
“If you’re learning about Korean food, everything starts with Maangchi,” Hatch says. “People talk about how that’s how they learned about their heritage. They reconnect with Korean culture through Maangchi.”
In Portland, Hatch has been lucky to count some of the city’s greats as his mentors: There’s Hwang, of course, as well as Jojo owner Justin Hintze and former Sunshine Noodles owner Diane Lam, who gave him his first cooking job back when her restaurant resided within Psychic Bar. As the bar morphed throughout the pandemic, so did Hatch’s role. He became kitchen manager at Prey + Tell, Lam’s Cambodian fried chicken restaurant within Psychic, then assistant manager, and eventually general manager at the bar.
Without this experience under his belt, Hatch says opening Frybaby would have been “an impossible feat.” But now, he has another community surrounding him. At Lil’ America, which exclusively features BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ chefs, Hatch has found an accepting and open community, one that he been searching for back when he was a new-to-Portland transplant. The carts at the pod aren’t just characterized by ownership that comes from underrepresented communities in the food space; they’re also a mix of established businesses and brand-new business owners, like Hatch.
“Every day, everyone’s kind of helping each other out,” Hatch says. “It feels like I’ve known these people for a while, and — from me growing up in Dallas — it also does feel like more of a diverse representation of America than I’ve seen since I’ve been in Portland.”
Frybaby is located at 1015 SE Stark Street.