Korean Food: Chicago, Mississippi, New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Sophie Lee says a plan has guided her life — it just wasn't one that Lee, now manager and co-owner of Three Muses and the new Korean restaurant Seoul Shack, could always recognize.

         When she was little, her mom and dad, Moon Ja and Alvin, ran a hot dog stand near Chicago called A&M Carry Outs.

         "That restaurant was in my blood," Lee said. "I can remember being 4 years old and sitting in the hot dog stand watching mom chop onions."

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         Food, though, wasn't important to Lee until much later.

         After kicking around Chicago singing in a rock band, Lee ended up in Meridian, Mississippi, to be near her mother, who had moved there after suffering two aneurysms. In Meridian, Lee waited tables by day, as rock singers often do, at a restaurant with a New Orleans-born chef.

         "We all became foodies together before that was a term," she said.

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         A roommate told Lee that someone who loved food and music should be in New Orleans. So Lee and her mom came to Louisiana.

         Only later, after Lee reconnected with her long-estranged father, did she learn that her paternal grandmother was from Tallulah, Louisiana.

         "I feel like I was pulled here by familial forces," she said.

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         When Lee teamed up with chef Daniel Esses to open Three Muses, she had only one demand. He had to include at least one Korean dish. Since it opened, the Frenchmen Street restaurant and music venue has always served bulgogi-style beef rice bowl, or bibimbap.

         Lee showed Esses how to make the bulgogi, just as her mother, who was born outside Seoul, had shown her when she was a child.

         "We didn't get the language, but she made sure we knew how to cook the food," Lee said. "I enjoyed it and didn't know why. As my life progressed, I got more interested in food, Three Muses happened, it all made sense."

         On Oct. 16, Lee and Esses opened Seoul Shack, a Korean walk-up kitchen off the Dragon Den's ivy-covered patio. For this project, Lee had to teach Esses a few more of her mom's recipes.

         The brief menu at Seoul Shack includes the bulgogi rice bowl popular at Three Muses, although at the new place Esses added some touches like cucumbers, carrots and a fried egg that make it more traditional.

         Chap chae, a dish of sweet potato noodles with slivers of vegetables, is completely vegetarian but has the same satisfying depth as a beefy bowl of pho.

         "That's the chap chae I grew up with," Lee said.

         And Lee swears the kimchee soup, exactly like her mother's, is an ideal antidote to a hangover.

         "I remember her soups were always comforting to me," Lee said.

         Esses added his owns flare with Korean flavors, like kimchee braised pork tacos, spicy chicken wings with a crust as crunchy as cracklings and KPots, brabrant potatoes in a secret spicy sauce that are like a Korean answer to Spanish patatas bravas.

         "As a New Yorker coming down to New Orleans," Esses said, "you're like, what makes New Orleans food New Orleans food? It's the trinity."

         He took the same approach to Korean food.

         "Sesame, garlic, soy sauce, a little bit of spice is Korean," he said. "You can make anything taste kind of Korean if you use those ingredients."

         Lee's mother, Moon Ja, died 10 years ago at 70, after three years in New Orleans. She'd be happy to know that her recipes are now being served on Frenchmen Street. She loved the city.

         Lee recalls that, back when she and her mother lived together on Royal Street, she'd call to check in during her shifts waiting tables. Moon Ja didn't always answer. And Lee would worry.

         One night not long after they arrived in New Orleans, Moon Ja never answered. Lee left work and biked home.

         When Lee arrived, her mom was outside their shotgun house, wearing a string of giant beads and enjoying the Krewe du Vieux parade.

         "She was dancing in the street with our shotgun neighbor," Lee said. "That's how we were introduced to New Orleans."

         – by AP/ Todd A. Price with NOLA.com | Times-Picayune

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