Peter Pak, the owner and operator of a novel, fast-casual restaurant in Bellevue called Oma Bap, grew up in Syracuse, New York, about 250 miles northwest of the New York City, where the second-largest concentration of Korean-Americans reside.
He and his two older brothers went to a large, public high school with about 600 kids in his graduating class, about 10 of whom, Pak said, were of Asian descent.
Consistent with the stereotype, his parents, both Korean immigrants, ran a dry cleaning business. His father also worked as a photographer, specializing in taking school pictures.
“Growing up,” said Pak, 31, “we were totally Americanized.”
Except, perhaps, when it came to meals. His mother, he said, “had a full-time job, but she was always able to make home-cooked meals for my brothers and me. Some nights it was American food, but most nights it was pretty much Korean. I’d say four out of five nights, we ate Korean food.”
“It was something we always loved, but it was hard for us to talk about or have our friends try. We would always have this jar of kimchi (spicy, fermented cabbage) in our fridge, and our friends would come over and think it was fish guts.”
The Paks, like probably many Korean-American families, registered that subtle pull of shame or shyness when it came to their particular kind of food.
In my half Japanese, half Korean family — my mother is a Korean immigrant, my father the grandson of a Japanese immigrant — the Japanese food is what we trotted out to feed guests. They would find tempura shrimp, beef sukiyaki, cucumber salad, futomaki, miso soup, and the like sufficiently exotic but approachable, we figured.
Our Korean food — pungent, sharp, musky, fermented flavors with unrecognizable ingredients — we saved for family or intimate guests. Our jar of kimchi, carefully sealed tight lest its penetrating smell escape, tended to sit in the back of the refrigerator.
When we did serve Korean food to friends, we (probably like many Korean-American families) kept to those certain, safe dishes, like bulgogi (marinated, grilled beef), mandoo (beef dumplings), and japchae (stir fried, clear noodles with beef). All are savory, slightly sweet, a little garlicky.
And so it went with Korean restaurants, which tended to open where lots of Korean-Americans live, unlike Chinese and Japanese restaurants, and later Thai restaurants, which one tends to find everywhere. Korean restaurants catered to Korean customers, and still do for the most part. You find them in Korean neighborhoods.
For that reason, Oma Bap is an exception. It opened “silently,” Pak said, seven months ago on Bellevue Way NE where a Baja Fresh franchise once operated. Oma Bap, with neon trim and wall of windows, shares its building with Fatburger. Most days the two restaurants draw an equal number of customers, burgers and fries on one side, fast-food bibimbap on the other.
“It’s a new concept and I’m a new restaurateur myself, so we opened our doors silently because of that,” said Pak, who earned a communications degree and ran a construction firm in Washington, D.C., and Florida for seven years before opening Oma Bap with help from his brothers.
“We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people eat here who have never had Korean food or had very little. That’s our goal to introduce people to Korean food. Korean food is the least represented of all Asian food.”
Most of his customers, Pak said, are not Asian. That was his intention. He chose to build his menu around Korea’s national dish of bibimbap, rice topped with meat and marinated vegetables, mixed with sesame oil and a deep red paste called gochuchang, made of fermented beans and chilies.
Bibimbap’s place in Korea’s culture is hard to overstate. The beloved meal comes in limitless variety, some with cooked seafood, some with raw fish, some with raw beef, some with only vegetables, some heated in a stone bowl, some served cold. Rules do not forbid any ingredients. The vegetables are often what make a bowl of bibimbap transcendent, wild greens, exotic mushrooms, root vegetables, ferns — I’ve seen them all in bibimbap.
It is a one-dish meal, an ingenious solution for leftovers, a reflection of the particular ingredients of a region or of one family’s household. It can be assembled as beautifully at home as in a restaurant.
Few other dishes can match the balance, the utility, the nutrition, and wholesomeness of bibimbap. A Nicoise salad maybe? Perhaps if it was served with a side of couscous. Bibimbap is heavy on the vegetables, light on protein, modest on starch. It is the food pyramid in a bowl.
Pak’s choice of bibimbap as his vehicle to indoctrinate the fast-food masses was perceptive and shrewd. Bibimbap is different and exciting enough, but also not too intimidating or off-putting. It can be served and eaten easily, although customers are given brief instruction on dressing and mixing the ingredients.
Think of it as a Korean burrito bowl (the option many fast-food Mexican restaurants offer for their low-carb-loving customers who don’t want the tortilla). Bibimbap is not dissimilar to the guts of a burrito. (In fact, I’m waiting, any day now, for the arrival of the Korean burrito, in effect, bibimbap wrapped in a tortilla. If Korean tacos caught on like wildfire, so should Korean burritos.)
Oma Bap’s bibimbap ($6.95 to $7.95) is by Korean standards, a fairly tame breed. It comes with carrots, cucumber, red cabbage, lettuce, shitake mushroom, bean sprouts, zucchini, your choice of either beef, pork, chicken, or tofu, and an optional fried egg. You can order it with white or brown rice, or a mix of rice and barley.
Oma Bap does serve other dishes like japchae ($7.95-$9.95), fried rice in an omelet ($7.95), mandoo ($3.95) and kimbap ($4.95-$5.95), which is Korean style maki sushi. All can be ordered with sides of miso soup, salad, and kimchi (which is fairly robust and not watered down).
All over Seattle, there are independently owned teriyaki shops that serve various Korean dishes like bibimbap or chige, a Korean stew. But the main feature of those restaurants is teriyaki; the Korean food is an accessory. At Oma Bap, the menu goes Korean all the way.
Pak chose modern finishes, a semi-open kitchen, and lots of glass for his restaurant. The table tops are made of engineered wood covered only with clear lacquer. The space is bright and inviting and even a little chic.
Those fluent in Korean cooking and regulars in the Korean restaurants of Lynnwood and Federal Way will probably think Oma Bap is to real Korean food what Chipotle is to Mexican food, but that is the point, Pak said.
“Our harshest critics,” he said, “are Korean people. I’ll be the first to admit this is not a traditional Korean meal. You can’t come into our restaurant with those expectations. Our concept is to promote Korean food and Korean culture.”
Most Korean restaurants, run mostly by first-generation immigrants, have not attempted to bridge any cultural gap, or make any inroads.
“They don’t really know how to market Korean food,” Pak said. “They just know how to make good Korean food… It’s a risk, what I’m doing now. There’s a huge educational barrier we have to overcome. I could have put my time and money into a Subway or some other well-known franchise, but I wanted to do something different. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Until now, Korean food has been served without compromise. Take it or leave it. Love it or don’t. Heat cannot be customized by designating the number of stars. The charm and the deterrent of Korean restaurants is that if you eat there, you should be prepared to eat as a Korean. There is no section of the menu with Americanized dishes, like egg foo young or chop suey at a Chinese restaurant.
Just about every Chinese restaurant, even those aiming for authenticity and Chinese customers, serves Mongolian beef and lemon chicken and moo shu pork. Thai restaurants tone down the spice and ramp up the sweet. Japanese restaurants oblige with teriyaki chicken and California rolls – if only Japanese or Japanese-Americans ate at Japanese restaurants, there would be far fewer of them.
A Korean-American woman from Queens once told me the vintage of a Korean restaurant can be determined by its décor. If its owner immigrated in 1982, the interior of his restaurant will look like a circa-1982 restaurant straight from Seoul and it will look the same in 1996 and in 2007, she said. The pattern speaks to the insularity of Korean culture in America and the insularity of its food.
Many signs indicate Korean food is finally ready to break into the food mainstream. The respected food website Epicurious listed Korean food as one of its top food trends of 2011. So did the industry magazine Restaurant Hospitality.
David Chang, a second-generation Korean American from Virginia, is the pioneering celebrity chef and the founder of the Momofuku empire of restaurants in Manhattan’s East Village. About seven years ago, he was among the first to bring Korean ingredients and dishes into a high-end dining room. Although his menus are eclectic and lean toward Asian, a few of his dishes are uniquely Korean, like his high-end, $200 version of bossam, a wrap-it-yourself, eat-with-your-hands dish of cabbage, raw oysters, pork shoulder (instead of the traditional pork belly), and spicy vegetables.
Within a few years, chef Bill Kim had opened a pair of popular, Latin-Korean fusion restaurants in Chicago, Urban Belly and Belly Shack.
Korean ingredients or Korean preparations have made it into the kitchens of many high-end restaurants, as famous as Le Bernardin and the French Laundry, and as local as Joule in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. This fall, a series called the Kimchi Chronicles aired on public television, featuring Marja Vongerichten, the Korean-born wife of renkown super chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. In the series, the couple cooked Korean food with their celebrity neighbors (Hugh Jackman and his wife), and traveled to Korea to discover and illuminate the country’s food.
In Los Angeles, the Kogi food truck introduced the now popular concept of Korean tacos (and gave new life to mobile food of all types). Korean chicken wings are now catching on thanks to the international, Kyochon and Bon Chon franchises. Another Korean fast-casual franchise called Bibigo Hot Stone, whose specialty is also bibimbap, opened its first American restaurant recently in Los Angeles. It also has outlets in Seoul, Singapore, and Beijing.
Pak’s timing with Oma Bap is largely serendipitous. He got into the restaurant business when the downturn in the housing market forced the closure of his construction business. It also happened to be a good time to try fast-food Korean.
"It's great to be a part of it,” he said. "I'm there almost every day. I recognize a lot of our customers. More than half of them are non-Asian. It's kind of great."
If you go: Oma Bap, 120 Bellevue Way NE, (425) 467-7000, www.omabap.com. Open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
This story has been updated since it first appeared to correct the spelling of a name.