As a kid in Northeast Philadelphia, Chris Cho peeled vegetables in his father’s Korean restaurants, but he was not supposed to end up in the business.
“I think most chefs don’t want their kid or people they care about to be a chef," Cho, 33, said last week. "It was more like, ‘We’re in America. Become a lawyer, become a doctor. Don’t do this.' ”
Cho dutifully opened cellphone stores and flipped houses. His hustle was lucrative.
But when his father, Kye, was sent to an emergency room one day about seven years ago, Cho stepped back to help at Seorabol, the family’s popular destination restaurant in the city’s Olney section.
“I actually enjoy serving, because we had zero waiters who spoke English," he said. “It was interesting to introduce people to the food, and they loved it. ‘Oh my God! Finally someone who speaks English!’ Then I went to the kitchen to see if there was anything I could help with. And I know this is corny, but I say it’s like King Arthur when he picked up the sword. For me, it was when I picked up the knife. I think I just had it in me.”
Just a few years later, Cho is set up on the ground floor of the Center City One high-rise on Spruce Street near Broad, running a branch of Seorabol and sharing his heritage with a wider audience.
Korean dining — traditionally found in the Korean strongholds of Olney as well as in communities in Cheltenham, Upper Darby, the Route 309 corridor through Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill — is slowly making its way into Center City.
Seorabol, which debuted in late October, joined SouthGate, which opened in 2015 at 18th and Lombard Streets in Center City, and Dae Bak, which opened in 2016 in the Chinatown Square food hall in Chinatown.
That’s not to say there had been a shortage of bibimbap, the rice dish usually served sizzling in stone bowls, and the fried dumplings known as mandu or mandoo.
The full-service bar-restaurants complement a contingent of smaller cafes (Buk Chon, Koreana, BAP), fast-casual eateries (Rice & Mix, Giwa), Japanese Korean hybrids (Tampopo), Korean fried chicken specialists (Bonchon, bbq Chicken), and the H-Mart supermarkets, which offer food courts. Joining the crowd later this month, on 11th Street near Locust, will be Crunchik’n, which also will sell oven-baked KFC to add a more healthful side to the menu.
To entrepreneurs like Cho, SouthGate’s Peter Hwang, and Dae Bak’s David On — second-generation Korean Americans — opening a Center City restaurant is a way to share their heritage with a non-Korean audience while also giving their contemporaries a place to gather.
Downtown Philadelphia has had only a few full-service Korean restaurants over the years. Miga had a three-year run on 15th Street near Walnut before it was uprooted in 2012 to make way for the building that houses a Cheesecake Factory; it later moved to the Art Museum area before closing.
Miga’s closing left Center City without a restaurant offering tabletop Korean barbecue cooking, although it’s offered at Nine Ting in Chinatown, which specializes in Chinese hot pot.
“I came to Philadelphia hoping to do barbecue,” said Chris Chung, 46, who with wife Alicia opened Buk Chon, a full-service BYOB, on Chestnut Street in Old City four months ago. “I talked with an architect who told me it takes a long time with the Health Department and there’s too much cost.”
Korean restaurants have long flourished in other big cities, notably New York and Los Angeles. Hwang said he believes some Philadelphians have been slow to adopt because they are not willing to embrace cuisines that are “not well understood, like Italian, French, and [those from] Southeast Asia.”
Korean food has much to recommend. It is largely free of gluten and dairy, and it is loaded with meats, seafood, and vegetables, especially fermented ones. Banchan, the small side dishes, add pops of color, flavor, and intrigue.
“Who doesn’t understand rice, meat, and vegetables?” asked Hwang, 40, who grew up in Cherry Hill on Pizza Hut and who says that as he got older, “I fell in love with Korean food again."
Still, the cuisine doesn’t particularly lend itself to the “scene” restaurateurs, what with the numerous hearty soups and stews with unsexy names such as jjigae, jjampong, and duk mandu guk. Alcohol selections typically are little more ambitious than beer and the clear spirit called soju.
At SouthGate, which offers a full cocktail list, Hwang said he initially didn’t think tradition would work in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood. “Maybe we started a little too Americanized,” he said. “Then we brought it back to that authenticity.” You can still find tweaks, such as the dak dori tang, which is not a stew but a spicy piece of chicken topped with gochujang jus and carrot-onion puree and served over mashed potatoes “because I love mashed potatoes,” he said.
At Seorabol, Cho said he is not eager for a scene or mashed potatoes or any semblance of fusion.
It’s about heritage and building a future for Korean Americans.
Staffers answer the phone with a cheery, "Gomabseubnida!” The menu is printed in Korean and English, even though Korean Americans make up about 10 percent of his customers — typical in Center City.
Cho does not Americanize his menu; his kimchi brings on the funk with no room for fusion. Against his initial misgivings, he opened with a sushi bar, a common feature at Korean restaurants, including the original on Old Second Street. He then reconsidered and ordered it removed.
“It’s just really about what the next generation of Korean kids are going to be left with,” Cho said. “Will it be a bunch of restaurants [in the older neighborhoods] we’re not going to go to anymore? What is a younger guy like me supposed to do to move the generation forward? I’ve come to the city with actual food so there’s a place for Korean people to hang out. And I think even non-Korean people want to come to a restaurant where it’s driven by, ‘Wow, there’s Koreans eating.’ ”
Cho insists that this time, he is not in the game for the money. “This is the first time I’m actually really good at something, and I’m passionate about it," he said. “You must be passionate to work 14 hours [a day] to do this. This business makes you humble.”
Humble to a point.
“In Philly, I have to be the one who’s taking the first shot right now and do this,” Cho said.
“I guarantee: Once this becomes a success, you’re going to see so many other authentic Korean restaurants come in. ‘Oh, he did it. I’m going to do it.’ I think no one had the [guts] to do authentic Korean food because they’re like, ‘White people like chicken.’ My thing is, non-Korean people like Korean food the way it is.”