Chi Moon’s favorite Korean dish is bibimbap. “I had it for a whole year — every single day,” she said. “Beef with multigrain rice.” It’s a fitting choice for the co-owner of the rapidly growing mini-chain Bowl’d, which is, at its heart, a rice bowl restaurant.
Moon praised the dish’s health status — it’s vegetable heavy, with whole grains and just a small amount of meat — but heathy eats are not the only reason why so many East Bay residents flock to Moon’s restaurants. There’s also, of course, the chicken wings.
“We’ve kind of turned into a fried chicken place, somehow,” said Moon’s sister and business partner Jessica Oh. “We thought maybe we should change our name to a wing place.”
Bowl’d’s original fried chicken wings have an extra thick, supremely crisp crust and are doused in a fiery red spicy-sweet sauce that sticks to your fingers, lips, chopsticks — anything. Despite the extra 10 to 15 minutes the wings take to arrive at the table, they’re a must-order for many guests, including this writer. “I think people would riot if we didn’t have wings on the menu,” said Oh.
They’re so popular, in fact, that when Moon and Oh decided to open their third location, Bowl’d BBQ in Temescal, they expanded their fried poultry line-up to full pieces of chicken and three sauces (soy, barbecue and spicy).
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
This story about bibimbap and chicken wings really starts in the early 1990’s, when the Micha Oh, Jessica’s mother, opened Koryo Korean BBQ at 44th and Telegraph in Oakland. She and her husband had moved to the United States from Korea in the 1980’s and ran a flea market business for a time. Eventually, they raised enough money to purchase the restaurant, but, as Oh said, “Everyone thought she was crazy.” Much of the Korean community in the Bay Area lived in San Francisco and expressed no interest in schlepping to Oakland for dinner.
“But then this one newspaper review just kind of blew up the restaurant,” said Oh. “All the international students from Cal found out about it, so it became really well-known.”
“Everybody lined up with the newspaper,” added Moon. “The students were looking for a place where the could find ‘mom’s cooking.'”
Micha Oh continued operating Koryo until Jessica entered high school. “She thought I was going to get in trouble, so she sold the restaurant to monitor me.” In 2005, after Jessica entered Cal for college, Micha Oh opened Ohgane, a wood-fired Korean barbecue restaurant at 40th and Broadway. It is still open, and very popular, today.
Both Moon and Oh worked at Ohgane, much of the time translating between the Korean-speaking staff, Korean-language menu, and a growing audience of non-Koreans. “Diners get bombarded with all of these dishes at the table, and if you’re unfamiliar with Korean food, it’s kind of overwhelming,” said Oh. “While we were talking to customers we realized that a lot of times people would say, ‘Oh I was here with a Korean friend once and that person ordered for me,’ or they had a lot of questions. … [We thought], ‘Hey, these are the reasons why Korean food might not be as popular as it could be.'”
Much of what epitomized Korean food in the mid-2000’s, said Moon and Oh, was either barbecue or kimchi. “Kimchi is not the most favorable thing to everybody,” said Oh. “I mean, nowadays it is, but back then, people would say, ‘It’s smelly, it’s spicy, I don’t know what it is.’ … [But] Korean food is much more than [those two things].”
This desire to showcase a different, healthier, and more familiar side of Korean cooking is what sparked the idea for Bowl’d. “We wanted to push the rice bowl,” said Oh. “We wanted to make that the epitome of Korean food. Our tagline was, ‘Be bowl’d, try Korean food.'”
In 2011, Moon and Oh opened their first location on Solano Avenue in Albany, with a menu that looks much like it does today — a wide variety of items to suit any kind of diet, and every dish, from stews to dumplings, is written in English. Moon and Oh train their staff to fully communicate with customers, “so that everyone is comfortable ordering something they can eat,” said Oh.
These considerations do, however, strike some diners as concessions. Detractors call the restaurant inauthentic and non-traditional. But Moon and Oh don’t see it that way.
“We get a little taken aback by that,” said Oh. “People get mistaken because we have a contemporary feel to our restaurants and we have an English-speaking staff, and we do a little play on different types of foods. Like there will be kale in our rice bowl, even though kale is not predominant in Korea.”
“But whatever’s fresh, we like to serve it to our customers,” added Moon. “Our sauces are all traditional … [and] there are all different ways you could eat bibimbap.”
Indeed, as Oh said, bibimbap simply translates to “mixed rice.” “It can be the fancy 13 vegetables with meat and egg like we serve at Bowl’d, or bibimbap at home could be just like what my dad makes for me, which is a few side dishes and rice,” she said.
“The fact that our dishes have a Korean basis is what makes them traditional to us,” Oh continued. “Korean cooking doesn’t have [recipes and measuring cups], it’s who you learn from, how you learn to make it. That’s the essence of Korean food.”
Unsurprisingly, Moon and Oh learned to cook food by hanging out in the family restaurants.
“We learned … by watching other people, watching our mom cook, watching the people that she trained cook,” said Oh. “From then on, it’s kind of about taste and what’s been passed on from person to person.”
“We’d look at dishes for such a long time,” said Moon.
The sisters continue to keep an open mind as they work to expand their restaurants.
At Bowl’d BBQ in Temescal, Moon and Oh initially offered all-you-can eat barbecue, as is common at other table-side Korean barbecue joints, including Oghane. The sisters inherited the restaurant’s equipment from its previous inhabitant, Sura Korean Cuisine, and they figured all-you-can-eat would be a no-brainer. But, said Chi, the neighborhood wasn’t interested in that much meat. “We had a lot of vegan and vegetarian [customers],” she said. “So we had to change our menu. We’re always learning [and sometimes] we have to make adjustments quickly to cater to people around that neighborhood.”
After the Temescal lesson, Chi and Oh changed their soup broth to a vegetable base, and altered their kimchi recipe to be 100% vegan. “A traditional ingredient in kimchi is salted shrimp,” said Oh, “so it’s not vegan. To fit with our philosophy of wanting to introduce Korean food [to everyone], we needed to make it inclusive.” Instead of shrimp, Bowl’d’s kimchi includes apples, oranges and pears for complexity.
“We take a lot of pride in our kimchi because it’s almost representative of what we do and who we are,” said Oh. “It’s maybe only one aspect of the many things that you get on your table but it’s important that we do it right. It’s important that we put a lot of thought and heart into it so that people understand that Korean food is welcoming.”
All that thought and heart translates to a lot of work. Oh said that it takes three people multiple days to make one batch of kimchi.
And kimchi isn’t the only dish that is labor-intensive. A full meal at Bowl’d will include at least an entree, which comes with several side dishes, called banchan, as well as perhaps an appetizer or two. The various sauces and cooking procedures required for each of these needs hands in the kitchen and many different ingredients, oftentimes imported from Korea. Dishes prepared behind the scenes can be as complex and multilayered as anything seen at higher-end restaurants in the area, but, said Oh, they don’t have the flexibility to charge high-end prices.
“At [many] other American restaurants, you … have a name of a chef,” and that name allows for a higher price and a higher level of expectation, she said. “With Korean food, no matter who’s [in the kitchen], it’s categorized as Asian food, which [comes with the] perception that Asian food is cheaper. … Yet we have the same [operating] cost as a high-end restaurant, because of all of the work involved in preparing our food.”
As such, Moon and Oh have been fairly cautious as they expand, paying careful attention to the neighborhoods to which they move. The menu at Bowl’d Alameda, which opened this spring, is still slightly in flux. “We’re still learning about what our customers would like to see here,” said Oh. “A lot of people ask about table grilling here.”
Spoon, which opened 2012, is targeted to the many office workers in its South Berkeley home. “We kind of wanted to do a little more playful menu over there,” said Oh. Unlike Bowl’d, Spoon’s menu offers items like kimchi fried rice wraps and barbecue sandwiches, which are easy takeout items.
“The best thing about Korean food is that, culturally, the menu is so extensive,” said Oh. “So it’s not a matter of us creating something new, it’s a matter of [us choosing] what we’re going to include in the menu and what we’re going to take out. So we make adjustments, depending on what neighborhood we’re in.”
They’re able to make these adjustments easily because the sisters have built up a tight-knit staff that operates as a family, said Oh. “The way we treat each other is the same way we treat our our team members,” she said. “So that’s been able to kind of help us grow as a big family — otherwise it would have been impossible.”
None of Bowl’d’s locations have tables with assigned servers. Oh is quick to acknowledge that this system wouldn’t work smoothly without a collaborative working environment. “You cannot run a restaurant by yourself. You can never say, oh it’s mine, I did it. So the front [of the house] and the [kitchen] have to work together. … We really have to know each other. It really fosters a tighter team. … We’re reliant on each other to make each other’s lives easier.”
When the original Bowl’d opened, Moon and Oh ran the show on their own. Soon afterward, Oh asked a friend to come and help them out as a server. “That grew, and we were able to build a mentor-like relationship,” she said. Eventually, “he wanted to take on a management position, [and having him] take care of one restaurant allowed us to open another restaurant, and then we just started that whole process again.” Miraculously, said the sisters, this process has repeated itself at each of their locations.
And they hope it will continue with Bopshop, the sisters’ newest venture, which opened in May. Moon and Oh have watched the proliferation of fast-casual restaurants across the Bay Area, and the country as a whole, with rapt attention. “We noticed that there weren’t many Korean options in the fast-casual industry,” said Oh. “This is our pilot.”
At Bopshop, there’s a short menu — bibimbap, barbecue (called teriyaki at the restaurant) and poke bowls; kimchi fried rice wraps and kimbap (similar to sushi rolls); fried chicken in wing and boneless “popcorn” form; and a few other small items. Customers order at the counter and watch their meal being built, Chipotle-style.
“We’re staying true to our recipes, but they’re repackaged and re-marketed in a different way, so it targets [a different audience],” said Oh. “We want to put Korean food on the map as one of the major [cusines] in American culture.”
The specific dishes served, and their ingredients, are less critical. “And at the end of the day, they’re eating Korean food,” said Oh. “That’s what’s important to us.”
Bowl’d is at 1479 Solano Ave. (at Santa Fe Avenue), Albany; 4869 Telegraph Ave. (between 48th and 49th streets), Oakland; and 2201D South Shore Center, Alameda. Connect with the restaurants on Facebook. Spoon is at 933 Ashby Ave. (at Ninth Street), Berkeley. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook. Bopshop is at 1823 Solano Ave. (at Colusa Avenue), Berkeley. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook.