Inside Choi’s Korea & Wing, you’re greeted with the thick, intense aroma of grilled meats, the salty steam of noodles, and the funk of fermented vegetables. And it may be the best Korean restaurant in town.
Out back, a Harley often sits waiting for the owners, dual chrome pipes under a bunch of black leather.
The bike and the food belong to Jong and Yong Choi, Korean immigrants who arrived to Charlotte with their children in 1998.
Not long after they got here, they started a restaurant off of South Boulevard, near the Compare Foods at Arrowood Road. Back then, most people in the city weren’t familiar with Korean cuisine.
So the Chois, along with children Byung (who goes by John) and Minae, cooked to the city’s expectations — dishes like kung pao chicken and orange beef, or any of the other familiar titles on those paper Chinese takeout menus hiding beneath silverware drawers.
They named the restaurant Choi’s Chinese Wing. They were, no doubt, cooking to the stereotype of Asian food, but they were also simply responding to market demand. Business was good. After two years in their first space, they were able to move across the parking lot to a bigger location — an old Long John Silver’s.
A few years ago, the city’s tastes started to change. International businesspeople and GIs who were returning from tours in Korea stopped in and learned about the family’s heritage. They asked for the Chois’ native Korean food. Special orders of beef bibimbap and bulgogi started flying out of the kitchen alongside the typical Chinese fare.
John noticed the shift.
“They want(ed) to bring more attention to Charlotte on Korean food and culture. Since K-pop and Korean drama has been so popular, we have so many new customers find out that we have traditional Korean,” John says.
Today, the old colors are still the same — blue roof with yellow signs — but the menu goes all in. Dolsot bibimbap ($12) sizzles inside a stone bowl; it’s topped with a fried egg and spicy, tangy gochujang sauce. Beef bulgogi ($15) arrives tender and smoking hot. And Jong and Yong make all of the Korean sides by hand.
Jong and Yong are the only kitchen employees in the restaurant’s 21-year history. Jong cooks all of the Chinese dishes, from sesame chicken to shrimp chow mein. It’s still excellent; I took some home to my pregnant wife who, before this experience, had eaten chicken and rice at the restaurant.
Yong, meanwhile, handles most of the Korean side of the menu. It’s based on recipes from her own mother, passed down in her family for generations.
John Choi remembers his mother’s cooking fondly from his childhood.
After the family moved here and got into the restaurant business, he and his sister worked the front counter as teenagers. He graduated from Providence High School in 2003, and a few years later, he moved out west.
He spent years driving an 18-wheeler until two years ago when Minae decided she, too, wanted to try something new, away from the family business. John felt an obligation to return. “(To) help my family out,” he says.
In October 2018, not long after John returned, the family decided to wield a name that better reflects their business and their history: Choi’s Korea & Wing.
A basic Korean meal consists of a grilled meat — ‘barbecued’ over coals (relax, N.C. barbecue purists; here it’s a verb) — rice, and noodles in broth. As a sidecar, an assortment of pickled and fermented vegetables, or banchan, is served with the dual task of both helping to bring out additional flavors in the food, and aiding in digestion.
Most people are now familiar with kimchee — typically made from cabbage that has been left to age (OK, rot) under controlled conditions with chili paste and garlic. It’s not unlike Southern chowchow, which many Appalachian grandmothers would immediately recognize.
Yong and Jong Choi roll seaweed around beef bulgogi, shredded daikon, cucumber, carrot, jalapeño, and sticky sesame rice, and serve it with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce made from soy sauce and vinegar.
They also have chicken wings, and for noodles, I went with pork ja jang myun ($12).
The menu has a few surprises. Still on my list of things to conquer is the beef bulgogi cheesesteak ($13). Another section reveals more unexpected offerings like gyros and fried fish — dredged in traditional cornstarch rather than Calabash-style cornmeal.
Not much has changed to the interior in the two decades they’ve been there. You won’t see cast nets or cartoon fishermen from the old Long John Silver’s anymore, but what you will see is the shell of a building that, if you’re anything like me, reminds you of childhood and parents’ reckless decisions with your cholesterol.
The dining room’s first major improvement in years — new tables and chairs — were installed this month.
As for expectations, the Chois are not your typical American family — and not your typical Korean one either.
When the weather is nice and the restaurant is closed, Jong and Yong pack up their 2011 Harley-Davidson HD Ultra Classic for a long ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway. In 2016, the whole family took a trip down south to Daytona Beach Bike Week.
But this ride is almost over.
You’ve got a little more than three years to visit before it’s all shut down. Jong and Yong started to tell family recently that they had a retirement date in mind.
“Summer 2023,” John quickly rattled off the finish line.
And that’s the goal. That’s what the Chois care about — not VIP guests, trending Instagram followers, or frankly, me writing this article.
Also, John isn’t interested in continuing the family business, and neither is his sister.
Their parents want to retire and spend their lives as they see fit, not having to worry about conforming to what people want, but making their own path, away from expectations.
In other words, they just want to get on their damn bikes, and ride.