Esther Choi’s grandmother taught her to love cooking and eating Korean food. She’s been in the restaurant business since she was 14. She also loves Korean food in Queens whether Geo Si Gi’s pork stew or Sik Gaek’s live octopus as you can see in the above video from our friends at Find. Eat. Drink. As chef and owner of Mokbar, a bustling noodle shop in Chelsea Market, Choi is one busy lady, so I’m grateful she took the time to answer 7 Questions.
What inspired you to open Mokbar? What does the name mean?
I felt the need to speak for Korean food. It can be more than just Korean BBQ like most Americans think. There are so many different special flavors and dishes in Korean cuisine. I wanted to show Korean flavors in a different light, which is why I decided to go with Korean ramen. The name was inspired from a term ‘mokbang’ which is a famous phenomena in Korea where people watch other people eat food. I actually thought it was hilarious and love watching it myself as well. Mok means to eat, so it made sense to me: “Eat Bar.”
What’s in your fridge at home right now?
A lot of kimchi. A lot of gochujang and doenjang. And a lot of beer. These are staples in my fridge and I feel really bad when it’s not filled with these items.
I love your ‘ho cake. Why is it so good?
Because we spent six months perfecting it! It comes from my favorite Korean street food hotteok which is filled with brown sugar and sesame seeds. I wanted to give it an upgrade and bring something that would compete against the classic pork bun that is normally served in ramen-yas. The dough is very finicky so it took some time to perfect, and then we make the filling with pork belly and caramelized onions.The sauce is a housemade kimchi hot sauce that balances well with the fattiness in the pork. This dish was continuously perfected and still is a labor of love.
Who taught you how to cook?
Of course, Grandma. She taught me how to love and appreciate food. My philosophy on food comes from her!
I really dug your army “budae.” Tell me about it?
I love budae jjigae. The dish comes from the U.S. army base when things like sausage, spam and cheese started to get imported into Korea. Koreans used these items and created this very popular dish. It’s one of my favorites, so I had to make a ramen inspired by this dish. It’s a meat lovers paradise!
Many of your ramen seem to be classic Korean dishes reinterpreted as ramen. Tell me about your samgyetang?
All of the dishes are inspired by some sort of Korean dish. Our chicken ramen, which happens to be one of our most popular, is inspired by samgyetang. The broth has many elements of samgyetang including ginger ginseng and dates. It’s then topped with pulled chicken and garlic chive kimchi and cucumber kimchi. The reason why I chose these two types of kimchi is because my grandma always served samgyetang with these kimchi. It pairs so well with the fattiness of the chicken. It is known to be great for your health as well.
If there’s one misconception about Korean food you’d like to see go away what is it?
That it is not just about Korean BBQ! There are so many different dynamic dishes that are not yet discovered by Americans. Korean cuisine dates back thousands and thousands of years and comes from traditions and values that are not only important with food but really in Korean culture. Korean BBQ is actually one of the more new aspects of Korean cuisine.