We’re in a Ramen moment—no doubt about it. In the Times, Pete Wells filed a massive Ramen survey a year ago, and no doubt half-a-dozen more slurp shops have opened since then.
If Wells had written a few months later, perhaps he’d have included mŏkbar (“eat bar”), which specializes in Korean ramen, hearty soup with Japanese noodles and Korean flavors. It occupies a diminutive stall in Chelsea Market, opposite a taco stand. Like many ramen bars, there’s not a ton of room—and what there is, fills up at peak times.
Mŏkbar is the improbable brainchild of Esther Choi, a New Jersey-born twentysomething of Korean descent, who went to Rutgers as a pharmacy major, got a corporate job, hated it, and went to culinary school.
The usual ending to such stories is a lifetime of dicing carrots in anonymity, but Choi persevered, finding steady work as a buyer for Food Network and as a sous-chef at La Esquina.
When a fried chicken stall went out of business at Chelsea Market, Choi jumped at the chance, beating out dozens of other chefs, including more established names, for the right to open her little Korean ramen concept.
Choi decorated the place herself, adorning it with antique kitchen utensils, jars of pickled kimchi, and little wooden signs handpainted in Korean.
There’s not a lot of cooking space, but Choi has use of a prep kitchen deep in the bowels of Chelsea Market, where her pork- and chicken-based stocks simmer for up to thirty hours, and she custom-ferments several different styles of kimchi.
The dinner menu starts with Anju (eight to choose from, $6–16). These are Korean small plates, often shared, and usually consumed with beer or soju (a popular Korean alcoholic beverage).
Then come the ramen (about eight choices, $13–14). We sampled only the hot ramen dishes, as our visit was in the dead of winter, but cold ramen is offered in the summer, as well.
Full disclosure: I visited with the publicist and another food blogger, which gave me a chance to sample more of the menu than I ordinarily would. However, I didn’t pay for the meal.
The chef makes terrific dumplings ($7; above). On the typical platter, half are vegetarian (cabbage, tofu, kimchi) and half pork. As a confirmed carnivore, I was surprised to find I liked the vegetarian dumplings a shade better: they seemed more distinctive, less repetitive of others in town.
You’ve probably never before had Disco Fries ($12; above), served with kimchi, ramen broth, cheese curd, and nori. Far too messy to eat by hand, they work best with chopsticks. I’d like the fries to be more crisp, but otherwise it’s a worthwhile dish.
The hit of the appetizers is the Ho’ Cake ($6; below left), a crisp pocket of browned flower filled with pork belly, and, you guessed it, a kimchi dipping sauce on the side. This is the dish that could make the chef famous. There’s a YouTube video showing how it’s made: remarkably complicated for a six-dollar item.
The present menu divides the ramen dishes into two categories: “brothy” and “saucy”. The “brothy” option seems (to me) more reminiscent of what you’d find in a Japanese noodle shop. The Kimchi Ramen is an example of this ($13; above right). It features a classic kimchi broth with braised pork. There’s a YouTube video for that, too.
The others we tried were of the “saucy” variety. I was drawn to the Black Ramen ($13; above left), made with black beans, bacon, pork belly, cucumber, daikon, and scallions. This dish started out well, but I must say I grew tired of it about halfway through. I had only a taste of the Spicy Tofu Ramen ($13; above right), with pork and tofu sauce, spicy garlic paste, minced pork, and a poached egg. This was the spiciest dish we tasted, and one I’d happily try again.
The portions are ample: I don’t think I could have finished any of these ramen bowls, even if we hadn’t started with appetizers.
This small restaurant is an impressive first effort for a young chef who has never run her own business before. As mŏkbar approaches its one-year anniversary, it seems to have attracted a loyal following. It was busy, though not full, on a cold Tuesday evening. Prices are modest enough to encourage repeat visits. I look forward to seeing what the chef can do on an even larger stage.
mŏkbar (75 Ninth Avenue between 15th & 16th Streets, Chelsea Market)