For years, procuring a proper Korean bibimbap meant shlepping 45 minutes north to Lauderhill's Gabose, where the blistering-hot stone bowls come filled with sizzling rice topped with sweet-soy-braised beef, pickles, and raw egg yolk.
But in late January in Miami's Edgewater neighborhood, Mijin Lee opened Fuchai Chinese & Korean Kitchen (2506 NE Second Ave., Miami; 786-558-7889), offering a concise list of Korean dishes that includes that country's iconic meat-and-rice dish ($13.50). It comes with shredded prime rib cooked in a sweet house-made bulgogi sauce redolent of soy, pear juice, and green onion stock. There are crunchy, frilly wood ear mushrooms, quick-fried bean sprouts, shredded carrots, spinach, and sautéed onions, all topped with a runny fried egg.
The only problem is that when a server sits the hot stone bowl upon your table, there's no sizzle. A check of the rice yields not a single crunchy grain. Early customers were quick to complain of the shortcoming to Lee, who in turn said she didn't realize quite how much those living in America have come know of Korean cuisine in recent years.
"I was scared to make authentic Korean food; it's all fermented and it all smells," she says. "I put Chinese on the menu because I didn't know if people would want Korean food, but already people are telling me they want more dishes, and the crispy rice."
Lee most certainly has the recipes lodged somewhere in her head. The 39-year-old was born in Taean, a tiny agricultural city situated in a region of the same name on South Korea's west coast. There, her family farmed tobacco to make ends meet while maintaining a small personal garden full of fruits and vegetables to fill their pantry. Behind the house was a field of clay urns where Lee would help her mother, JuangSun Kim, make kimchi that was fermented for as long as two years before it was taken out and placed on the family table.
"Making kimchi, gochujang, miso, those were my chores," Lee says over a plate of salty/sweet galbi short ribs ($13.50) sprinkled with sesame seeds and resting atop a tousle of pickled purple cabbage.
After a brief stint in college, she found work as an inspector in a semiconductor factory near her hometown, and despite disliking the work, she kept at it for nearly a decade. Still, she was always thinking about food, and family members would rave about her cooking.
She enrolled in night school, a kind of hybrid culinary/hospitality institution that specialized more in restaurant management and food presentation than cooking. When a teacher suggested she relocate to the States to learn, it seemed like a dream come true. A J-1 visa and a flight to Reno, Nevada, made it happen. For the past decade, she's worked primarily in hotel kitchens — huge operations that can afford to sponsor foreign visas.
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After a few hard years with Hyatt, where she met her husband, Fuchai's chef Alid Rodriguez, she left for the Conrad. She still works for the hotel and spends the morning hours at her new restaurant before dashing off for the luxury Brickell property to work until midnight.
At the same time, she's scrambling to perfect the menu's existing Korean dishes. A good bet is the japchae ($10.95), a hefty bowl of translucent sweet potato noodles stir-fried with wood ear mushrooms, carrots, scallions, green beans, and bulgogi-marinated slices of rib eye. Korean-style lettuce wraps ($11.50) come with tender butter lettuce leaves stacked with big minty leaves of perilla. Get them with spicy chicken thighs, and amp them up with the accompanying dish of spicy ssamjang.
It's hoped that Lee will bolster this list as she also crisps up the bibimbap's rice. She certainly has the chops, and not having to drive to Broward for solid, affordable Korean would be a welcome bit of news.