MIDWEST CITY — Yong Rucker might well be the most forgiving mother in the Oklahoma City metro area.
That's because she holds no ill will toward her five adoring daughters for cajoling her into opening a restaurant without previous experience. Yong's Jeon Ju, 217 S Sooner Road, opened in December 2009 and has developed a reputation for authentic South Korean cuisine surrounded by walls turned to art by an internationally renowned artist.
Sune Hawkins is one of the daughters responsible for luring Yong into the notoriously difficult and all-consuming hospitality industry. Perhaps in penance, Sune recently returned to Jeon Ju to help her mother out. Sune says her sisters had noble motives.
“We wanted to share the food we love with everyone,” she said. “We love our mother, and we love her food. We just wanted people to experience it.”
The results of Yong's toil are a pleasure to those of us lucky enough to find her little eatery near the corner of Sooner Road and Reno Avenue.
“Our food isn't Americanized,” Sune said. “It's the food we grew up with. It's food my mother grew up with in Korea.”
Jeon Ju is named for the South Korean city of Jeonju, where Yong grew up and lived when she was whisked away by an American named James Rucker in 1970.
Earlier this year, the city of Jeonju won recognition for its culinary contributions. UNESCO'S Creative Cities Network named Jeonju a Creative City for Gastronomy, recognizing the city's traditional home cooking handed down through generations, its active public and private food research, a system of nurturing talented chefs, and its hosting of distinctive local food festivals.
Sune said it's also a city noted for its Bibimbap, a bowl of beautiful ingredients awaiting the diner's influence.
The word literally means “mixed rice.” Bibimbap is a bowl of warm white rice topped with sauteed and seasoned vegetables and the lethal chile paste, gochujang. Topped with a fried egg and sliced meat of your choice, the ingredients are stirred together right before you eat it.
Jeon Ju also serves Dolsot Bibimbap, which arrives in a sizzling stone bowl. Sizzling platters of fajitas have nothing on this presentation as a fresh egg just finishes cooking upon arrival.
You'll find a variety of vegetables in the dish, including daikon, mushrooms, doraji (bellflower root) and fresh bean sprouts. It takes about a sniff to fall in love with this dish, and once you start eating it, a new world opens up. As the rice on the bottom continues to sizzle in sesame oil, the dish evolves as you eat it.
Jeon Ju also serves bulgogi in three varieties: beef, pork and chicken. Meat-eaters will rejoice over this platter of boldly flavored sizzling meat and onions served with steamed rice.
No meal at Jeon Ju can be consumed without at least one of Yong's homemade pancakes. The traditional name is Pajeon, and Sune said they are omnipresent at the Korean table. Yong's Pajeon is served like a small pizza, cut into triangles. One bite, and you'll find yourself unable to share. The pancake is derived from a batter of eggs, wheat flour, rice flour, green onions, and secrets Yong is not about to share.
The most prominent ingredient is fresh jalapeno slices placed so each triangle is adorned with one. The Pajeon is crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside and packs enough heat to warm the chilly heart of chef John Bennett, who has been known to dream of these flavor havens. Yong advised the Pajeon is to be eaten with a special soy sauce solution she mixes herself. A little vinegar and sugar turns the soy sauce into a balanced and inviting condiment.
Speaking of condiments, the first dishes you receive at Jeon Ju are called banchan. They will arrive before you order. Seven small bowls containing various fermented and marinated chilled vegetables await your fancy. Kimchee, the condiment that is to Korea what salsa is to Mexico, is the heart of banchan and all Korean food. The national dish of Korea, kimchee is a combination of ingredients such as Napa cabbage, daikon radish, dried salted shrimp, ginger, garlic, red chili powder and green onions fermented in fish sauce and brine. The flavor is big. It is not for the meek or fragile, kissing whatever it touches with fury and flame.
Other condiments include what's generally referred to as Namul, which is virtually any vegetable or combination of vegetables lightly pickled or seasoned in the manner of kimchee. At Jeon Ju, the Namul includes Do Chua, the Vietnamese combination of julienned carrots and daikon mildly pickled. Also in the circle of flavor is Dongchmi, also called water kimchee, a briny broth in which daikon floats with a little scallion, carrot and cabbage — the broth is intended to be spooned out, leaving the vegetables. Kkakdugi is a variation of kimchee consisting of kimchee-seasoned daikon cubes. Kongnamul is boiled bean sprouts, drained and seasoned lightly with sesame oil, soy sauce, chopped green onions, sesame seeds and a hint of garlic. Also included were chilled marinated potatoes and a lightly pickled carrot and broccoli combination.
Banchan is to be eaten at the pleasure of the diner, whether mixed with bulgogi and rice, dropped into bibimbap or added to a kimchee hot dog.
It can also be added to Kimchi Soon Tofu, also known as Soon Dubu Kimchi, a soft tofu soup served with or without meat and plenty of gochujang chili sauce. For those who like to sweat when they eat, this is your weapon of mass perspiration. It's served with steamed rice, which offers fleeting respite from the incendiary nature of this addictive soup.
Yong also makes a handy dish called Kimbap, which will look a lot like a sushi pocket. Steamed rice encasing various vegetables and meats wrapped in gim (dried seaweed sheets), it can be sliced to look very much like sushi rolls. Yong wraps her Kimbap in plastic so you can order it to go. Also available to go is toasted rice candy. It will test the resolve of your dental work but wash sweetness over the smoldering trails of gochujang on your palate.
Original work of art
While the food at Jeon Ju will demand your attention, the explosion of color that adorns the walls will guarantee no lull in conversation.
Yong's daughter Cindy lives in New York with her husband, noted German-born artist Markus Linnenbrink, who is known for his work with brightly colored streaks and drips, including a line of Swatch-brand watches. In August 2011, Linnenbrink turned the walls inside Jeon Ju into a site-specific work of art called “SUDDENLYEVERYTHINGMINDGOESONHOLIDAY.”
Linnenbrink's works are on permanent display at places such as San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, the Herzliya Museum of Art in Israel, The Hammer Museum at the University of California in Los Angeles and the Neue Galerie of Kassel, Hesse, in Germany.
If you go
Jeon Ju is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 217 S Sooner Road in Midwest City. Prices don't reach far beyond $10, and family-style dining is a given. For more information, call 672-4644