Korean restaurant owner cooks from the heart

When Yong Kwon's 2-year-old grandson was born in the Year of the Golden Pig, which occurs only once every 600 years in Korean astrology, she knew it to be an auspicious sign that boded lifelong fortune and wealth.

Little did she expect, however, that such luck also would be her own, in the form of a tiny Korean restaurant that appropriately bears her grandson's nickname, Golden Pig.

Today, a quiet road in Cecil that leads to a small brick building across from a soccer field is an unexpected portal to Ms. Kwon's native South Korea. It's in this suburban setting that Ms. Kwon whips up steaming plates of Korean dishes guided by the same recipes and philosophy that have been in her family for generations.

"My mother taught me that cooking has to come from here," Ms. Kwon gestures to her heart. "All the way to --" she wiggles her fingers -- "here. You really have to care to make it taste right."

She has honored that belief since the restaurant's opening last fall, using only ingredients that she would feed her own family: organic tofu and fresh, local produce and meat.

"She makes each dish right in front of you from scratch, so it's not sitting around forever," said her daughter-in-law Kelly Smith, who stops by with the family at least once a week to help "but mostly just to eat."

Ms. Kwon's personal connection with the food also is evident in the simple menu. The single laminated page is a collection of dishes Ms. Kwon ate as a girl, cooked using the exact recipes her mother had followed in her small restaurant in Andong, South Korea.

It was there that Ms. Kwon got her first taste of the restaurant business -- and decided she didn't like it.

"I saw how hard she worked. I was never going to touch a restaurant again," she laughs. "And look at me now!"

The Golden Pig
3201 Millers Run Rd.
Cecil, PA 15321
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.--Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat.

Indeed, it wasn't fate so much as the defiance of it that has defined Ms. Kwon's story from the beginning.

A native of South Korea, she came to the U.S. in 1978 to attend technical school in Charleston, W.Va., where she chose to study computer science because it was in demand, although she had no affinity for the subject.

"I didn't want to sit down at a desk every day. I like talking to people," she said.

Upon graduation, she took a position as a banquet worker at a hotel and settled down to start her family.

In 1995, when her son was grown, she returned to her native Andong with a simple explanation.

"I missed home, so I went back."

She stayed with her mother and helped with her restaurant for 13 years, until the birth of her grandson, A.J., drew her back to the U.S. in July 2008.

For a few weeks, she lived with her son in Canonsburg, until she decided that she needed a job and a place of her own. That decision would set her on the path to the establishment she owns today.

With no specific plans, she embarked on her search for employment. She had scarcely driven three miles from home when she noticed a "For Rent" sign in front of a one-story building on Millers Run Road. The place was cozy, comfortable and -- she concluded on the spot -- perfect for a restaurant.

One year later, that spur-of-the-moment decision is echoed in the restaurant's casual atmosphere. Golden Pig, with its two tables and tiny kitchen, doesn't resemble a restaurant so much as an intimate, inviting home.

"It's as if you had a Korean mom and you're sitting at the kitchen table and she's cooking for you," said Jake Zigler of Robinson, who discovered the restaurant in March and now eats there weekly.

The space fits six seats and a few bar stools that overlook the cooking area, where Ms. Kwon bustles about, pulling ingredients from the refrigerator, chopping vegetables, stirring tofu on the stove, or pouring a cup of hot tea.

"Do you want some pork in your kimchi pancake?" she calls to a customer. The question is more rhetorical than inquisitive. "It will taste better that way. Here, I'll put in some pork."

For a restaurant that began with the sole aim of paying the rent, Golden Pig has exceeded her wildest dreams.

Ms. Kwon said she never anticipated her authentic Korean cooking -- untweaked to suit American tastes -- to be so well-received. The most popular dishes include man-du, or beef-and vegetable-filled pan-fried dumplings ($7.95 for lunch/$10.95 for dinner); bulgogi, or beef marinated in sesame oil and wine ($8.25/$11.25); and spicy squid ($12.95).

When she describes how customers buy entire jars of homemade kimchi or call hours in advance to request their favorite dishes, her eyes widen.

"I'm still shocked that people like it," she said. "I cook it, and they eat it all."

Evidence of her devoted customer base is everywhere.

What began as a bare, undecorated shop is now adorned with shelves of pig paraphernalia -- pig erasers, pigs wearing sunglasses, plush pigs, piggy banks -- all given to her by guests.

Their generosity -- a testament to their affection for Ms. Kwon and her cooking -- doesn't end there. Customers also come bearing artwork, vases, sculptures, souvenirs, tableware and dishware, and even bus their own tables despite her protestations.

"I feel like I'm in my home country again, in my hometown. People here really care."

It's difficult not to care, to feel a tug of emotion, when she receives a visit from the restaurant's namesake toddler, whom she promptly scoops up and places in a high chair as she begins to whip up much of her culinary repertoire: rice cake soup, fried potato slices, sweet potato noodles.

Then, after placing the steaming feast in front of the boy, she renders a vast breath to cool the food before transferring each spoonful -- a hand-crafted gift from the depths of her heart -- into the mouth of her Golden Pig.

Spicy Chile Chicken (Mae-un dak)

PG tested

In her excellent new cookbook, "Quick & Easy Korean Cooking: More than 70 Everyday Recipes," Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee writes, "There is a town in the Gyeonggi province of Korea that specializes in this dish." I want to go to that town, and to Korea in general, because with this simple paperback, she gives me such a taste for cooking there.

"You can drive down the streets and see a chicken restaurant on practically every corner," she continues. "All the joints are pretty much the same with huge, flat griddles on the table. Once you sit down, the waitresses will pile on all the ingredients, pour on the chile paste seasoning, and cook the dish right in front of you as you salivate in anticipation."

Just leafing through this paperback made me salivate, so much so that, on a weeknight when I was getting home late, I still decided to whip up some Korean dinner with ingredients easily grabbable at my neighborhood Giant Eagle. (Not the Korean chile paste, which she says has no substitute, but for one night, until I was able to get my eager hands on some, my chili garlic sauce did just fine).

The author, a James Beard nominee who also wrote "Eating Korean: From Barbecue to Kimchi, Recipes From My Home," is a first-generation Korean-American. Her photographic collaborator is Julie Toy, whose style is simple and clean, too, and there are lots of lovely shots of Korea taken by Ms. Hae-Jin Lee herself.

You can re-create the fun of visiting Chicken Town at home, she notes, with an electric frying pan or make this recipe in a large skillet or wok.

I say, you can easily re-create the fun and flavor of Korean home cooking with this book.

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken, cut into about 2-inch pieces
  • 1 yam, peeled and cut into thin strips about 2 inches long
  • 1 small onion, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 zucchini, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/4 head cabbage, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 green onion, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 3 tablespoons Korean chile paste
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over high heat. Add the chicken, yam, onion, zucchini, cabbage and garlic, and stir-fry until the chicken is cooked through and the vegetables begin to brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Add the green onion, chile paste, soy sauce and sugar, and cook for a couple of minutes or so.

Serve immediately with hot rice.

Makes about 4 servings.

Variation: If you're using an electric frying pan on the table, you can keep the chicken hot as you eat from the frying pan. As you near the bottom of the dish, add leftover white rice to the pan with a bit of sesame oil.

-- "Quick & Easy Korean Cooking: More than 70 Everyday Recipes" by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee (Chronicle, $22.95)

Seasoned Sliced Beef (BUlgogi)

PG tested

"This is a delicious dish that's super easy to make," writes Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee. "Feel free to add other vegetables to this dish. Good candidates are oyster or shiitake mushrooms, onions, zucchini, bell peppers of any color, or even thinly sliced carrots.."

  • 2 pounds rib-eye or other tender beef, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 bulb garlic, minced
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 3 green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Toasted sesame seeds for garnish

Marinate the beef in the soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and garlic for about 30 minutes (or overnight if you want).

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the beef and stir-fry until completely browned, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the black pepper and green onions and cook until the green onions are slightly limp but still retain their color, 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle with sesame seeds if you like and serve immediately.

Makes 5 or 6 servings

-- "Quick & Easy Korean Cooking: More than 70 Everyday Recipes" by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee (Chronicle, $22.95)

SautEed Eggplant (Gaji Namool)

PG tested

"Outdoor markets in Seoul are filled with beautiful purple eggplants when they are in season in late summer," writes Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee. "Much smaller than the European varieties, Korean eggplants are similar to their Japanese cousins. The traditional way to make this banchan (side dish) is to boil the eggplants first and then shred or cut them, but I've found a method that is much simpler. If you don't like spicy food, you may omit the chile powder, but compared to some other Korean dishes, the heat is barely noticeable."

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 medium eggplants, cut into 1/2-inch-thick strips, 2 to 3 inches long
  • 1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
  • 1 green onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon Korean chile powder
  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, crushed

Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and eggplants and stir-fry until the eggplants are limp and starting to brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the sesame oil, green onion, soy sauce and chile powder, and stir-fry for another minute or so. Remove from the heat.

Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve either warm or at room temperature.

Makes 5 or 6 servings.

-- "Quick & Easy Korean Cooking: More than 70 Everyday Recipes" by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee (Chronicle, $22.95)

Liyun Jin can be reached at ljin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410. First Published August 13, 2009 4:00 AM


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