Mŏkbar (75 9th Avenue, 646-964-5963) is tucked inside Chelsea Market. Seating is limited, with only a long bar in front and a small section in the back. What the place lacks in space, it more than makes up for with its food. Run by chef Esther Choi, Mŏkbar is the only Korean ramen bar in New York and, according to Choi, probably the world.
Though many people associate ramen with Japan, the dish originated in China. Korea and China influence each other, especially in terms of culture and cuisine. In Korea, ramen is called ramyeon, is often flavored with kimchi, and garnished with vegetables like carrots and green onions, eggs, dumplings, rice cakes or cheese.
Mŏkbar, however, doesn’t make traditional Korean ramyeon. Instead, every ramen dish on Choi’s menu is informed by a traditional Korean dish that every Korean family eats; Choi just adds ramen noodles to it. The cold ramen veggie yachae, for example, was inspired by bibimbap, a rice dish, and bibimyun, a cold noodle dish. Although the dishes are definitely Choi’s take on ramen, the flavors and spices remain truly authentic to Korea.
Choi was born in the U.S. but spent her formative years in Korea, where a majority of her time was devoted to watching her family cook. Her family would throw big parties and her mother and grandmother — whom she still calls for advice on recipes — would make everything. She eventually moved back to the U.S., getting her first job as a restaurant waitress and hostess when she was 14. After college, Choi went to culinary school. She worked for a few restaurants and at the Food Network’s kitchen, but eventually felt the call to do her own thing. She opened Mŏkbar last May in the Chelsea Market.
While her dishes are reflective of authentic Korean fare, she tries to make vegan and vegetarian options integral to her menu.
“Right away when I wrote my menu, I was like, how am I going to cater to every kind of person in New York. I just want options for people,” Choi says. “When I created this concept, it was more for the people of New York, the people who have never tried Korean food, the people who want to get more familiar with the flavors. For me, it’s about who I’m cooking for. Because there are a lot of vegetarians and vegans, it’s important to me to cook for them too. When I create dishes, I always try to think of all the different diets. It’s not just about meat.”
The veggie yachae ($13) has less broth than hot ramen; the ramen noodles are covered in a variation of the restaurant’s Mŏkbar spicy sauce that acts as more of a dressing, rather than a broth. The yachae is basically an ample veggie bowl (the noodles sit at the bottom), with bean sprouts, spinach, daikon, cucumber, shiitake, kimchi and potato, all topped with an egg. Overall, the dish is a melding of crispy and crunchy textures, coupled with an incredible number of flavors: sour, tangy, sweet, and piquant.
Kochi sticks ($5) are rice cakes that are battered and lightly fried, and served kebab-style. They’re garnished with sesame and scallions and slathered with a thicker version of Mŏkbar’s spicy sauce. The sesame provides a slight nuttiness, while the sauce is fairly spicy but also an immediate sugariness. The rice cakes are chewy and thick, with a crisp, fried outer shell. The scallions, too, are pungent. The kochi sticks can be prepared vegan, as well as the yachae.