ANTHONY BOURDAIN FAMOUSLY SAID, “If you’re thirty-two years old and considering a career in professional kitchens… you are too old.”  Ok Yon Kim, the 70-year-old chef at Kimchi Pop, would disagree. After a lifetime of home cooking, she’s standing behind a professional stove for the first time in her life, slinging out delicious Korean dishes that are the envy of cooks of any age.

Her son Victor Sotelo is her sous chef and manages front of house. He loves the restaurant scene, so was curious to try opening a restaurant with his mother. He’s no typical sous chef either—he’s a professional cellist, trained at Northwestern, who plays gigs all over the country.

“When I visit New York City I go crazy for the restaurants there. I have so much fun there, and I didn’t feel we had quite the same scene here, where most Korean restaurants are very traditional,” says Victor. “My mom found this opportunity for the space and I thought I’d combine these two things—I wanted to open a fun Asian place and my mom cooks really well.”

Graziano prosciutto

Together they experimented with developing a menu that combines Victor’s enthusiasm for the restaurant scene with Ok’s more classical Korean home cooking. “We named it ‘pop’ because in Korean pop means kimchi rice, but it also reflects the vibe,” says Victor, who designed the interior himself with a bright orange color scheme he describes as fun and colorful.

Housemade kimchi

I live right down the street, so I followed their buildout eagerly. Most Korean restaurants in the area are Korean BBQ, which while great, doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of Korean cooking. “There is a lot of Korean food that’s not BBQ. BBQ is more like a steak and you don’t go to a steakhouse every day,” says Victor. Ok adds “The cooking is my style—homemade, I am not a special chef or cook, this is my own style.”

Kim hardly looks 70, and it’s hard not to imagine her food plays a role. She prides herself on her healthful cooking and refuses to take shortcuts. She makes her own kimchi, as well as her own broth, a key ingredient in many of her dishes. “In many restaurants I’ve tried, the broth tastes like water,” she says. I tell her that many restaurants use packaged stocks or bouillon and she seems horrified. She prefers not to deep fry and every dish is full of a bounty of vegetables. “I use the same ingredients I would use to feed my family,” she says.

She uses that broth in her hearty kimchi stew, which she fills to the brim with spicy kimchi and tops with pork and tofu, a personal favorite that Ok has made countless times for her family. The menu also has trendier items like ramen and a Korean-style breakfast burrito. “I love burritos and Del Seoul,” Victor says, referring to the popular Northside taco-Korean fusion restaurant. “We are using a rice tortilla and it’s chewy on the outside, with gooey kimchi and cheese inside.”

Cafe ramen

Chilled summer noodles

For the summer they are making a “cafe ramen,” a broth-less ramen that still manages to pack the flavor of an entire bowl of broth into the noodles themselves, tossed with strips of crunchy seaweed and sliced carrots. If that’s too rich on a hot summer day, they have chilled summer noodles, thin rice noodles in a lightly spicy broth tossed with sesame kimchi, impeccably poached eggs, and crunchy fresh purple cabbage.


We named it “pop” because in Korean pop means kimchi rice, but it also reflects the vibe.


Of course there are plenty of hearty dishes besides just kimchi stew. Curry rice, a style of curry imported from Japan, is a classic turmeric-infused thick delicious sauce with potatoes and carrots. A favorite of mine is the duk bo ki, chewy rice cakes mixed with soft fish cakes and saturated with gochujang, a spicy-sweet fermented hot pepper sauce. It’s easy to find something to love on the menu, and they plan to add more items as they get more experienced with running the restaurant.

Duk bo ki

Bi bim bop

You can get most dishes with various meats and not surprisingly, Ok is a stickler for having quality meat. She tried the type of mixed cut meat many local places used and decided it wasn’t good enough, opting for higher end cuts instead that she skilfully marinates for the best flavor. But I’d be remiss not to mention the tofu, which has a crispy crunchy outside and is especially wonderful with their most popular dish bi bim bop.  Their version is rice topped with carrots, cucumber, spinach, seaweed, fresh cabbage, kimchi, and finished off with a perfectly cooked egg flecked with sesame seeds. If you order it in house you get it in a traditional stone bowl.

Kimchi Pop is BYOB, and you’ll find the restaurant’s long wooden tables filled with people enjoying a meal with beer they’ve brought from the nearby liquor stores that cater well to the BYOB crowd, such as Noble Grape and Lush.

HP

Ok cooks everything to order, which means you should call ahead if you’re looking for quick takeout. But it also means she can customize everything she makes for dietary restrictions. “Everything can be made vegan or vegetarian,” she says.

While most twenty-two year olds are snug in bed, Ok is closing up the kitchen. “I’m very strong, I’m working until 1 or 2 am,” she says. Victor adds, “I’m often sitting here when the restaurant closes waiting for her to finish up the washing.” Whether she realizes it or not, Ok is a talented chef, and we’re all lucky to now have access to Victor’s mom’s home cooking.

Owner Victor Sotelo and chef-mom Ok Yon Kim

 


When Melissa McEwen isn’t writing about food, she’s the PR agent for pizza squirrel and a spider farmer. You can pester her on Twitter @melissamcewen.

COVER IMAGE: Michael Gebert


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