Telling Esther Choi that she cooks like a grandma is a compliment — and it won’t surprise her. Having just opened her first standalone restaurant Mokbar in Park Slope at 212 Flatbush Ave., the minimalist decor is standard new Brooklyn but everything else is rooted in Choi’s relationship with her Korean grandmother, Jungok Yoo.
It’s that grandmotherly soul that Choi is trying to show at her new location, part of an effort to make traditional Korean cooking more mainstream. Korean food has already been gaining popularity, with fast-casual versions of bibimbap and kimchi popping up on burgers. Choi has contributed to this, running Mokbar as a ramen stand in Chelsea Market for the last three years.
But she wants to do even more. Growing up in a mostly white neighborhood in Egg Harbor, New Jersey, Choi had little access to Korean culture or food outside of home. There, her grandmother took care of Choi and her siblings as their parents ran a small business, a dry cleaner. Yoo cultivated a garden in the backyard stocked with fresh Korean squash, perilla leaves, and skinny, neon green cucumbers — things that weren’t sold in the local grocery stores. She ground her own chili powder, and she fermented her own kimchi. Choi watched and together, they cooked.
Choi wasn’t planning on entering the restaurant industry, but she knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur. When she decided to cook, she wanted to serve the Korean flavors from her grandmother. Her newfound resolve felt like a responsibility to showcase Korean culture, she says.
“My family was so important to me growing up,” Choi says. “If I grew up in Korea, I probably wouldn’t be so passionate about my culture. It’s a weird thing. I was a little deprived from it, so I craved it more. It became one of those things that was embedded in my soul.”
At her new, 60-seat outpost in Brooklyn, she wants to go further in embedding Korean traditions in local food culture. A new section of her menu is dedicated to jip bap, which translates to “home meal.” It starts with protein — such as braised short rib, pork belly sautéed with kimchi, or salted mackerel — followed by rice, soup, and a selection of three to four banchan, little vegetable dishes. It costs $24 all together.
Mokbar’s new location will still serve many of the same ramen dishes from Chelsea Market, such as ssamgyetang, a chicken-based ramen broth inspired by a soup that Choi’s grandmother used to make for her while she was sick. She’ll also feature a wider selection of anju, shareable dishes named for the snacks that Koreans eat while drinking.
Choi hopes people will come back for the jip bap and its accompanying seasonal dishes. “My goal is to not have a Korean ramen shop,” she says. “With this restaurant, obviously we want to keep the same brand. But also the goal is [to encourage people to] try another dish. Try a rice dish that focuses on how Koreans really eat at home.”
Choi’s grandmother is now living in a retirement apartment with her grandfather. She’s come to visit Choi’s new restaurant and, as grandmas are wont to do, nitpicked at preparations. The two of them now have a date for Choi to learn more.
Though Choi isn’t able to visit her grandmother as much as she’d like, her grandmother is at the restaurant in spirit. “Whenever a Korean comes to eat my food and they say ‘My god, this is what like my grandma’s food tastes like,’ it’s so great for me to hear that,” she says. “It’s very emotional for me.”