The Kids of Koreatown
As the owners of Koreatown’s legacy institutions grow old, we find out how their adult sons and daughters are bringing traditional eateries into the modern age.
- By Andrea Yu -
It’s 8 P.M. on a snowy winter evening and the dinner rush is in full force at Korean Village Restaurant.
General manager Jason Lee stands tableside by two patrons who are dining at the 38-year-old Koreatown institution for the first time. With a pair of metallic tongs, he carefully tends to pieces of pork belly as they sizzle on a tabletop grill.
“This way it gets crispy without burning,” he explains as he expertly arranges fatty slices of meat on the grill, allowing for plenty of breathing room in between. “All the good fat stays in the meat and the B.S. fat cooks off.”
Ok Re Lee, Jason’s mother and Korean Village’s founder, used to operate the grills in decades prior, when Korean immigrants made up the majority of the restaurant’s clientele. Like Ok Re, they were used to having their meat well done.
“She’d crank the heat high and it would burn the meat,” Jason says.
But over the past decade, as the restaurant’s clientele has evolved, so have its barbecuing practices.
“At first we would argue and yell. I told her, ‘You have to understand not everyone in this restaurant is Korean. Don’t cook it to your tastes. Find out what they like.’ ”
Korean Village was one of the first Korean restaurants to open along Bloor Street in the 1970s – a by-product of immigration fuelled by civil unrest in the homeland.
Over the next two decades, the stretch of Bloor Street between Christie and Bathurst gradually transitioned from its Greek and Latin roots, making way for the slew of Korean restaurants, beauty shops and grocery stores that we see today.
But since the 2000s, gentrification and climbing rents have pushed some legacy restaurant owners out of the downtown core to the newer and larger Koreatown in North York (one that’s arguably more authentic than the original on Bloor Street).
As central Koreatown’s customers have diversified, so have its businesses. In between the traditional Korean restaurants, there are now taco joints, ramen shops and comfort food diners all vying for the attention of the neighbourhood’s changing customer base.
That means traditional Korean eateries in central Koreatown have to work harder than ever to remain in the game. And one way to do that is by appealing to a wider range of customers, which is why the 35-year-old Jason is so adamant about refining Korean Village’s meat-grilling protocol.
We still write our bills by hand. It’s the biggest struggle I face with my mother.
He is one of many second-generation restaurateurs in Koreatown who want to help usher their parents’ traditional businesses into the modern age.
“Seven years ago, we started seeing less and less Korean people and more non- Koreans,” Jason says. “Korean food has picked up traction in popularity. It’s not just Chinese and Japanese food anymore. Korean food is finally gaining steam.”
And aside from refining the grilling, Jason has plenty of ideas as to how Korean Village could improve its operations.
“We still write our bills by hand,” he says. “It’s the biggest struggle I face with my mother. I’ve been begging her for a point-of-sale system for seven years now.”
The restaurant’s overwhelming 220-item menu was another sticking point for him when he became general manager in 2006.
“Back then it was a yellow plastic book with no pictures,” he says. “People would look at the menu, go through 16 pages, close it, stand up, get up and leave. Now there are 155 items. I’ll take that as a victory.”
For Ok Re and other first-generation Koreatown business owners, abandoning tradition – whether it’s billing standards or having a diversity of menu items – doesn’t come easily, even if it’s a necessary step toward staying in the game.
A few doors west of Korean Village on Bloor Street, Suki Lee works the counter at her parents’ decades-old Korean bakery, Hodo Kwaja. There, staying competitive might mean tweaking production and scale.
“I’m trying to get my parents to bake less, but they’re old fashioned,” says Suki (no relation to Jason Lee). “They hate going to places where it’s sold out every time.”
By throttling output, the 28-year-old wants to appeal to the generation of foodies that she is a part of – savvy, smartphone-wielding diners willing to wait in line for limited quantities of coveted Japanese cheesecakes at Uncle Tetsu or Instagrammable soft-serve cones at Sweet Jesus.
Since her parents started the operation 24 years ago, non-Korean customers now outnumber Korean ones.
The bakery’s recipes and methods have changed little in that time. Hodo Kwaja churns out an average of 5,000 walnut cakes a day, thanks to an impressive baking machine imported from Korea that garners as much attention as the cakes it produces.
The key to the cakes’ deliciousness is the fresh batter and red bean filling made from scratch by Suki’s mother and father.
Their days start at eight in the morning, when Mr. Lee starts hand-cracking eggs – 250 in total over four batches of batter – into an industrial blender. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lee heaves a giant metal pot onto the stove, large enough to cover all four burners.
There, she’ll boil up a batch of dried red beans (locally sourced from a farm in Hensall, Ont.) and then mash them into a smooth and lightly sweetened purée. The process takes up to five hours.
It’s a labour-intensive routine for Suki’s aging parents. Her mother is 53 and her father turned 60 last year.
“My dad’s output is not as much as he could do before,” says Suki, who hopes that limiting production will also ease the workload of her parents. “I’m trying to tell him, ‘Hey you don’t have to bake as much. It’s okay if we sell out, Dad. They’re not gonna get mad if we’re sold out.’ ”
Suki grew up in the bakery but never imagined herself working there full-time
While Suki grew up in the bakery, which opened when she was just four years old, she never imagined herself working there full-time. She studied hospitality and tourism before taking up a reception management role at a gym, setting her sights on employment at a five-star hotel.
But six years ago, the bakery was suddenly short-staffed after a close family friend, who had been helping out at Hodo Kwaja, headed back to live in Korea.
“My parents told me they needed my help and I gave my two weeks’ notice.”
Familial obligation is a recurring motif among many of Koreatown’s legacy institutions. Carol Lee (again, no relation to Suki or Jason) grew up in the aisles of PAT, her parents’ supermarket, which serves as a Koreatown landmark.
Eleven years ago, when Carol was finishing a degree in kinesiology and contemplating a career in nursing, PAT underwent a massive move and expansion from a two-aisle convenience store on a side street to the sprawling, 6,900 square-foot operation on the main drag it is today.
“Initially I wasn’t planning to help run the store,” Carol says. “But seeing my parents having to do double, triple the work, I knew they needed our help.”
After launching the expanded PAT market, Carol now runs the grocery store along with her brother Eddie and their parents.
The elder Lees are well into retirement age (Carol’s father is 71 years old and her mother is 64), so they welcome their children’s help, eager to pass on the lessons they’ve learned over decades of running their own business.
Clad in the supermarket’s signature fluorescent orange work vest, Carol agrees that she still has much to learn from her parents. And her father is equally humble in passing the torch to the next generation.
“My dad always tells us, ‘I’ve done up to here,’ ” she says, gesturing with her hand chest-high. “ ‘Now it’s up to you guys.’ ”
A few years ago, Carol and Eddie upgraded PAT’s cash registers, making checkout more efficient and accurate.
“[My parents] can’t use the POS systems, whereas me and my brother, learn it and teach everybody. So, slowly we’re changing.”
Just east of PAT Market, the Kim family’s Royal Boonsik restaurant is no stranger to change. Tommy Kim’s parents had been operating a catering business supplying cooked dumplings and kimbap – sushi-like rolls – to Korean supermarkets since 1997, when the family emigrated from Korea.
Six years ago, they moved the business to Bloor Street, adding a grab-and-go counter to their catering operation. In 2013, the Kims switched gears and reopened their business as a full-fledged restaurant.
Canadian-raised, Tommy Kim and his younger brother Sunny were integral in helping shape the menu at his parents’ restaurant. Early on, the Kims recognized the diversifying community and were eager to attract a broad customer base.
“My brother and I understand the taste buds that non-Koreans have,” Tommy says. “We were able to pick and choose items that other people would enjoy, not just Koreans.”
The younger Kims grew up helping out with their parents’ business, and for the last year or so Tommy has been all-in at the restaurant after graduating from a police foundations program. He has considered taking over the operation, but his parents aren’t so sure about that.
“They know the hard work that this involves, and the instability of this business.”
While Tommy is still working full-time at the restaurant, he’s since set his sights back to policing and has applied for work with the RCMP. He says his parents will likely ride out the remaining four years of their lease, then shut Royal Boonsik’s doors for good.
We’ll have to decide: do we shut this place down or will I have a chance to run it the way that I’d like to
“They can’t wait,” he says with a laugh. “They’ve done this for way too long. They just want to retire and rest.”
The story is different back at Korean Village, where Ok Re Lee is eager for her son to continue the family legacy – though she might have difficulty relinquishing control.
“We’ll have to decide: do we shut this place down or will I have a chance to run it the way that I’d like to?” Jason says. “I think I’ve earned that. I could help this place be more profitable and be run more efficiently.”
That efficiency may mean a slimmer menu or an electronic billing system. But for some of Korean Village Restaurant’s most dedicated regulars, Korean or not, the expanse of offerings or the traditional charm of a hand-written bill could be part of what keeps customers choosing his restaurant over the next big thing opening down the road.
“This is not going to be Koreatown forever and ever,” he says. “I’d be sad if we closed, but I have faith that there’s going to be other Korean restaurants popping up, whether it’s here or somewhere else in Toronto.