Food

Korean BBQ Wunderkind Deuki Hong’s Dumpling-Happy Homecoming

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Fans of chef Deuki Hong, who left New York City for the West Coast in January, may want to visit Mimi Cheng’s this month. The Korean-BBQ wizard is back in town to join forces with the downtown dumpling specialists for a unique collaboration: Popcorn Chicken Dumplings. A riff on the popular popcorn chicken dish at Sunday Bird, Hong’s Korean fried chicken concept in San Francisco, these new treats feature ginger-scallion chicken dumplings and Korean rice cakes that are deep-fried and served with sweet, pungent gochujang sauce. In other words, “popcorn chicken” is a bit of a misnomer. “The deep-fried rice cakes are the pop element of the popcorn chicken,” says Hong. “They puff up, so they’re crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.”

It’s a welcome homecoming for the chef, who developed a cult following at Baekjeong, the Koreatown BBQ joint that put him on the map. On paper, there seemed little reason for him to leave: The restaurant was crushing it, with both high-profile chefs and celebrities like Maria Sharapova and Chris Rock dropping in to sample Hong’s handiwork. At 27, he’d made it, and that’s pretty much why he left. “I got very comfortable, to be honest,” admits Hong. “And I was very uncomfortable with the fact that I was comfortable. I can’t be at that right now. I want to push a little harder and grind a little bit more, and then maybe I can get all that.”

Hong may have left the Big Apple for the Bay, but forgive him his trespasses, as he maintains an unstoppable fervor for our fair city. “I miss everything: the people, the community. There’s just something about this city,” says Hong, who starts every service at Sunday Bird by playing Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind.”

“People think I’m joking, but if you come at 12:01, you’ll hear [the song] playing,” he says. “My heart is in New York.”

His goal, however, is to open a new Korean BBQ restaurant in San Francisco, for which Hong is currently scouting locations. Until then, at Sunday Bird it’s just him and his guy Sergio, who helps with the dishes. It’s a stark contrast from his days at Baekjeong, where a team of 21 helped slam out service for upward of 600 people a day. Not that the limited focus has made things easy. “I’ve messed up so much [out there] — maybe I didn’t feel settled, but whatever it was, the dining community has been so forgiving. Being from New York, I promise you that would never happen here,” he adds, laughing. “The concept of grace and mercy exists in San Francisco, though it’s a very educated dining community, which I appreciate, as it keeps your bar high.”

At Mimi Cheng’s, where Hong’s dumplings will be on offer through the month, they’re even throwing a homecoming party in his honor. “I asked Hannah and Marian [Cheng, of Mimi Cheng’s] to not do an event, and when I saw the invite I was like, ‘I hate you so much,’ ” he says jokingly of the restaurant’s sisters, whom he met a few years back when all three were honored at Zagat’s 30 Under 30 event. “Their position was that they wanted to throw a party and gather all of our friends. I said, ‘Fine, but we’re not going to do service or anything like that, right?’ I just want to see all my friends and literally do nothing. So we’re just going to catch up and say ‘what’s up.’ ”

Mimi Cheng’s East Village
179 Second Avenue, 212-533-2007

Mimi Cheng’s Nolita
380 Broome Street, 212-343-1387

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