A new fast-casual restaurant reimagines Korean food

Chef Kevin Lee believes Korean food’s path to dominance has been a long time coming.

“I never understood how Japanese, Filipino and Thai cuisine got so far ahead of Korean food,” he said. “I think Korean food is so much more accessible and palate-friendly to Americans.”

Lee knows a bit about American palates. His run through Oklahoma City’s culinary scene started with short-lived restaurant Burger Rush, where he served fried soft-shell crab sandwiches, and wound its way through the Coach House’s apprenticeship program, earning him a job as executive sous chef at Vast, 333 W. Sheridan Ave. Along the way, he helped design the menu for Chae, 1933 NW 23rd St., a major milestone introducing Korean food to Oklahoma City.

Now he joins business partners John Lee and Jason Chang to open Gogi Go, a fast-casual Korean barbecue restaurant set to begin operations in the fall in the former site of Organic Squeeze Kitchen Table, 1325 N. Walker Ave.

“We just put the wall up, and [Organic Squeeze] gave us 500 more square feet, so it turned out perfect,” said Kevin Lee. “Now we have two doors instead of one, so one will be an exit and the other is the entrance. Now our lines won’t be snaking through the restaurant.”

There will be lines once Gogi Go begins serving. While Lee won’t be doing the day-to-day cooking, he has built a strong following in the local foodie community. Concepts with his stamp draw customers and good word of mouth.

The restaurant will be simple, in the style of a Korean Chipotle, he said. Diners choose the protein, the toppings and the delivery system and the counter staff puts it together.

Much like Chipotle, people can get chicken, pork or beef, but instead of Mexican flavors, they’ll be marinated in Korean spices and served over rice, on a salad or in a burrito.

“The flavors are really classic Korean flavors. It’s not like we’re taking Korean food and changing it into something else,” Lee said. “The variety of toppings and sauces are what make it really interesting.”

Sauces are not endemic to Korean cuisine, he said.

“Koreans are not the sauciest people in the world. They marinate and use banchan and pickles,” he said. “It’s about marination and fermentation.”

Banchan are the side dishes served with Korean food — little bowls and plates of different pickled foods, lettuce and vegetables — and they’re integral to the cuisine’s versatility.

“One thing you notice about Korean food is a lot of flavors are similar. Usually, it’s soy sauce or gochujang, which is Korean chili paste,” Lee said. “What makes it unique is the banchan. You have an option where every bite can be different. Order your main menu item and how you eat it with different sides makes it different.”

Banchan at Gogi Go will be toppings, and customers don’t need to worry about anything too wild. Lee said to expect the usual lettuce, avocado and different sauces as well as fried shallots and sauteed corn.

“Nothing crazy. Honestly, with this concept, we’re introducing people to Korean food,” he said.

But rather than a full-service Korean barbecue experience, in which diners cook their own meat, Gogi Go will have an open kitchen so customers can see the meat cooking on a flat-top.

As for Korean burritos, Lee said it’s about giving the people what they want.

“We’re in Oklahoma. People love burritos,” he said. “It’s as simple as adding tortilla to our stock. We’ll have kimchi-fried rice instead of Mexican rice.”

In addition to appealing to Korean food lovers, Gogi Go will serve dishes that accommodate vegans, vegetarians, those on a gluten-free diet and people who only eat halal-certified meat.

Korean awakening

Though Korean restaurants have been in the metro for decades, Lee said Chae helped pave the way for a more modern approach to the cuisine. He said the biggest challenge to Korean cuisine’s proliferation has been the attitudes of Korean people.

“Korean people are the most stuck-up, hard-headed people in the world. The food is their pride and joy, and they don’t want to change it for anybody,” he said. “They don’t want to change who they are. That’s Korean culture.”

Now, as second- and third-generation Korean-Americans are getting into the food scene, they’re helping soften that cultural resistance to change and making it easier for new diners to enjoy the cuisine.

“In California and New York, that change is already happening with a new generation of Korean chefs,” he said.

That’s not meant to insult Koreans. Lee is proud of his heritage; he just wants more people to enjoy it.

“When I designed Chae’s menu, Korean people were going in, saying, ‘This isn’t Korean food,’” he said. “Every cuisine borrows from each other. Korean people would ask why we put noodles in the oxtail soup, because in old-school Korean people’s mind, that’s not how it’s done.”

Lee dreams of eventually opening a full-service Korean barbecue. The groundwork he and his partners are laying with Gogi Go could help that dream come true sooner than later.

“I’m really hoping the concept does well. I think being in Midtown will help,” he said. “It’s constantly growing; we have great neighbors, like Waffle Champion, Louie’s [Grill & Bar] and Stella — a lot of local restaurants.”

Gogi Go could open as soon as October if construction and permitting goes well. But if it isn’t open in November, the owners will wait until January to begin serving customers.

Print headline: Gogi Go hungry, Korean fast-casual restaurant Gogi Go plans a fall opening in Midtown.

Kay Kim
Gogi Go opens what owners hope is the first of many locations of its fast-casual Korean concept

The mural by artist Kris Kanaly inside Gogi Go might seem abstract, but look closer and you will find references to chef Kevin Lee’s life and influences.

There is the blue of the Bricktown Canal, but there are also references to Lee’s youth in Seattle, college years in Las Vegas and post-grad time in Korea.

For Lee and business partners John Lee and Jason Chang, the opening of Gogi Go mirrors the goals of second- and third-generation Korean-American chefs like David Chang (Momofuku) and Roy Choi (Kogi): to elevate Korean food to more accessible concepts.

“Growing up, none of my friends had Korean food,” Kevin Lee said. “Now, everyone knows bulgogi and kimchi, and it’s really cool to see how it has evolved into a cuisine that everyone wants to try.”

Gogi Go opened in Midtown at 1325 N. Walker Ave. in early January after a 16-month renovation process as Lee, also chef de cuisine at Vast, devised a fast-casual Korean concept menu modeled after Chipotle. Lee is a graduate of the Coach House apprenticeship program and also helped design the menu at Chae, 1933 NW 23rd St.

“It’s Korean food in a different setting, different environment,” he said. “People are used to going to a mom-and-pop restaurant where they don’t feel very comfortable, versus here [where] it’s more accessible and in a cool setting.”

Concept execution

There are only five options on Gogi Go’s menu. Customers choose a preferred protein like grilled chicken, beef bulgogi, spicy pork or crispy tofu, then pair it with a starch like fried rice, white rice or japchae (stir-fried noodles). Finally, they top it with Korean banchan (pickled items traditionally served on the side) like kimchi, daikon and red onions.

Lee said the opening of a restaurant can be the most perilous time, as kitchen staff learn the menu, but he devised a system that allowed him to continue working at Vast while turning over Gogi Go to trusted staff.

“The execution has been pretty phenomenal so far,” Kevin Lee said. “It’s been a good month and a half so far. It’s the hardest part. There are not enough cooks in Oklahoma City to support all of these concepts, and they might not start out of the gate too well, but for us, the concept and people we have has been great.”

Partners John Lee and Chang approached Kevin Lee about opening a Korean concept a few years ago. Neither has a background in the restaurant business, but John Lee’s family owned Korean House in Del City from 1988 until 2002.

“It means the world to me because my family started in the restaurant business with my grandparents,” John Lee said. “My mom learned to cook from my grandmother, and I was always in the kitchen. It was important to me to do this to share the culture and Korean food. We want to make it more accessible. Our expectations have been exceeded. It’s been humbling to know that the city has accepted and supported us. To see people try the food and say it is delicious is a testament to Kevin creating a system that works. It’s all the hard work we put into the last 16 months. It’s satisfying to know it was worth all that pain and suffering.”

Beyond Midtown

A walk along Walker Avenue comes with the smell of grilled meats wafting onto the sidewalk from Gogi Go. Even if the line to go through the counter service goes out onto the street, Kevin Lee said customers see their order topped with a perfectly sous vide-poached egg in about 12 minutes.

Delivering high-quality food quickly is part of the model that Gogi Go owners are planning to scale to other locations. Kevin Lee said scouting has already begun for a second location, something they are shooting for in 2019.

“We plan on scaling this business, so we want to build the right system and be picky about what we do,” John Lee said. “We do five things, and we want to make sure those five things are the best.”

Gogi Go will roll out specials including lettuce wraps for the summer through its social media. It recently debuted local beer and canned wine this weekend, which will be joined by patio service and Korean popsicles over the next few months. Its commitment to its core menu is modeled after other successful restaurants in the city.

“If you look at the restaurants that do well here: Empire [Slice House] pizza, Tucker’s [Onion] Burgers or Irma’s [Burger Shack], they’re all specialized,” Kevin Lee said. “The number two store is everything because if you don’t do well at number two, there is not going to be three, four or five. You have to be patient and pick and choose where we want to go. Location is important, and we’re lucky and blessed to be here. We want to make our second location just as good.”

Print headline: New generation; Gogi Go opens what owners hope is the first of many locations of its fast-casual Korean concept.

Kay Kim
Get ready for casual Korean barbeque

Midtown will become home to fast-casual Korean restaurant Gogi Go this fall. Kevin Lee, who is currently the chef de cuisine at Vast, will open the new Korean barbecue eatery in late October or early November, in part of the space formerly occupied by Organic Squeeze on the ground floor of apartment complex The Edge at Midtown.

Gogi is the Korean word for meat, and the name is a play on the term for Korean barbecue: gogi gui.

“We’re going to focus on three meats, really: chicken, beef and pork,” Lee says, “but we will have dishes for every dietary restriction: gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan.”

Lee’s partner in the concept, John Lee (no relation), said Gogi Go would package traditional Korean food in a way that makes it more approachable for Oklahoma City diners. Lee said Korean food is really easy to like, but the environment can be challenging for diners new to the style, especially trying to translate information from a menu that’s not heavy on English.

“I think Chae has done a really good job of this so far,” he says, “but we’re going for a much more casual, counter-service approach. At the same time, we’ll have banchan – small side dishes – and all the sauces like gochujang and ssamjang that we make in house.”

Diners will choose their ingredients and sides at the counter, and most of the meals will be served over a bowl of rice. The process makes it possible for one good chef or line cook to manage the kitchen – an approach that is becoming increasingly necessary, according to Kevin Lee.

“We don’t have enough trained staff in Oklahoma City to support the restaurants we currently have, so new restaurants will have to be creative about staffing,” he says. “That means it’s better to have the bulk of the work done in prep, and then one cook can finish everything off as it’s ordered. All the meat will be marinated, and then the cook can just throw them on the grill as they’re ordered.”

Kevin Lee said the goal was to keep it fresh and still be fast. That means that something will always be on the grill, and they also will have a register that is dedicated to customers who need another beer or canned wine, so they don’t have to get back in line. That register will also handle retail sales of other popular Korean items such as popsicles and sodas that will be on hand in a refrigerated section, much like a convenience store setup.

The team also has a third partner, Jason Chang. The build-out is already underway, and Smith & Pickel Construction is overseeing the project. HSE Architects is designing the interior. John Lee said he expects seating for 60-70 inside, and an additional six patio tables on the sidewalk alongside Walker Avenue.

Kay Kim
New In OKC: Gogi Go

Korean food is coming to Midtown right after the start of 2018. Jason Chang, John Lee and Kevin Lee (the latter is the executive chef at Vast) are opening Gogi Go in the Edge Apartments development on NW 13th and Walker Ave. The name comes from the fast-casual concept: bulgogi, which is Korean barbecue, combined with a counter-service approach to customer care.

“We want to make Korean food accessible to as many people as possible,” Kevin Lee said. “Until Chae came along, Korean restaurants were confusing to most people.”

Whereas Chae has focused on full-service dining, Gogi Go will work much like a Korean Chipotle, with patrons moving down a selection counter. Each station provides choices: rice bowl or “burrito,” protein, vegetables, and sauce. Kevin Lee said the restaurant would focus on three very traditional Korean proteins—chicken, beef and pork—a lineup that should be very easy for Oklahomans to get behind. There is also a tofu option for vegetarians, and while tofu is another traditional Korean protein, Lee said it is usually mixed in with meat, not just served as an alternative.

John Lee, whose mother opened the first Korean restaurant in Oklahoma City, said Gogi Go is an homage to the women who kept the food and culture alive in Oklahoma City. When Korean restaurants first started appearing in Oklahoma City in the 1980s, it was the mothers who ran the kitchens, often with the grandmothers cooking at home and taking care of the children. The Gogi Go team, as well as Daniel Chae, represent a new movement in Korean cuisine: men in the kitchens.

“We want people to experience Korean food in a way that the process isn’t confusing,” John Lee said. “The older generation has passed on the dishes and techniques, but they haven’t made it more accessible to a larger audience. Korean food is huge all over the country, and it should be here, too. It’s delicious, hearty food that we believe Oklahoma City will love.”

Gogi Go will function with minimal staff, making for low overhead and affordable food. The processes have been streamlined to the point that a small team can handle all the responsibilities behind the counter. The idea is to deliver rice bowls and wraps to customers quickly for about $11-12. Refrigeration units in the restaurant will contain Korean sodas, as well as popsicles in the near future. Beer and wine will also be available for dine-in.

A typical bowl will contain short-grain, white rice, kimchi, pickles, a selection of vegetables, including radishes, broccoli, onions, etc., meat and a sauce. Kevin Lee has tweaked some of the sauces to expand our definition of Korean food, but traditional sauces like gochujang will also be available. He’s also added some personal favorites to the veggie list that he thinks make sense for Korean food and Oklahoma City.

“I love fried onions,” he said. “One of our options will be fried onion strings. It’s not traditional, but it works and it’s delicious.”

Look for Gogi Go to open the first or second week of January. Lunch and dinner service are planned, with the restaurant closed on Mondays.

Kay Kim
Gogi Go's coming to Midtown this fall

Chef Kevin Lee of Vast soon will help open Gogi Go, a fast-casual Korean concept in Midtown. 

Midtown will become an even more delicious destination this fall with the opening of Gogi Go, which its owners describe as "Chipotle for Korean food."

Chef Kevin Lee, of Vast, has partnered with John Lee and Jason Chang to open the concept in the space previously occupied by Organic Squeeze Kitchen Table, 1325 N Walker Ave.

In the months to come, the space will be divided in half with Gogi Go taking over the portion on the north. Organic Squeeze will keep the other half and open as a standard unit.

Lee said the menu will present bold Korean flavors served in salads, rice bowls or burritos, along with a broad selection of banchan (Korean condiments) in a kid-friendly atmosphere. That's important for the father of a newborn daughter.

"We want this to be a place people feel comfortable bringing their kids," Lee said. "So, we're going to have some cool stuff that kids like to eat."

Gogi Go should seat about 50-plus patio dining during the warm weather months. It won't include a full bar but plenty of local beer. The partners also plan to offer late-night dining at some point.

"We might do a window or something like that," Lee said. "With all the bars and the people living in the building, we think there will be a market for it."

Chang and the two Lees plan to open Gogi Go in the fall, but Lee isn't leaving Vast to work full-time at the concept.

That's because he might be in line for more responsibility high atop the Devon Tower, where he currently serves as executive sous chef.

Executive chef Patrick Williams recently left Vast for a kitchen close by. He is the new executive chef at Flint in the Colcord Hotel, just down the elevator from Vast. Williams takes over for chef Jonas Favela, who recently took the stove at Meat Market Refectory.

Lee is the favorite to follow in Williams' footsteps for chef Kurt Fleischfresser, who is director of culinary operations, but no announcement has yet been made.

New doughnut concept rolls into town

Imagine a world where you can order a vanilla cake doughnut with buttercream and classic sprinkles while at the same time procure a blueberry cake doughnut with maple glaze, topped with bacon bits and a Sriracha drizzle.

That world will be ours when Sweet Mini's Donut Co. opens at 14600 N Pennsylvania Ave. on Tuesday.

The concept will specialize in made-to-order mini doughnuts, ice cream, sundaes, and doughnut-topped shakes and malts.

Guests will be able to choose a signature doughnut or create their own combination from the menu, and then watch as their doughnuts are made and topped to their specifications.

The store opens at 7 a.m. Friday as it will daily, closing 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Short orders

Finally made it out to Aurora Breakfast Bar and Backyard, 1704 NW 16, in the Plaza District last week. This is a terrific new concept I soon will be targeting for a deeper dive, but for now I can tell you chef Henry Boudreaux (The Museum CafeLudivine) has announced his presence with authority. The biscuits and gravy are so good they should be the subject of academic study. Furthermore, the results of that study should be used to set a legal standard, which would no doubt improve the city's overall biscuits and gravy game. The coffee ain't bad either. ...

Chef Vuong Nguyen (Guernsey Park, Bonjour) jumped into the vacancy at Ludivine left when Boudreaux headed to Aurora. Nguyen and chef/owner Russ Johnson should make for a dynamic culinary duo.

The Hal Smith' Group will open a second Hollie's Flat-Iron Steakhouse at NW 150 and Pennsylvania Avenue. The steakhouse with southwestern flair opened its first location in Moore in 2012. The new concept is still under construction, so don't look for it to open until summer. ...

The folks who brought En Croute to Nichols Hills Plaza earlier this year will look to make lightning strike twice with St. Mark's Chop Room. With what promises to be a simple, sophisticated menu from chef Jonathon Stranger (Ludivine, R&J Supper Club), the new dinner spot will open in the plaza next-door to En Croute this summer.

Kay Kim