Byungho and Hyunsook Kwon took over the operation of Chicko Tako, a Korean food stand in the Market at the Fareway (formerly the Chestnut Hill Farmers Market), in September and have earned rave reviews online from customers. (Photo by Len Lear)

by Len Lear

Americans long ago embraced Chinese food. According to a Chinese restaurant trade magazine, there are more than 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. Japanese food, which was once considered exotic, is also now mainstream. You can find sushi, sashimi and teriyaki dishes today in countless non-Japanese restaurants as well as in supermarkets, specialty stores, food courts and smaller food markets.

And whereas there were no Thai or Vietnamese restaurants in the Philadelphia area when I was a child, now there are dozens of each, according to a recent Google search. However, one Asian cuisine that has become popular on the West Coast, with its much larger Asian population, but has not really broken through on the Atlantic coast is Korean food.

Korean cuisine is largely based on rice, vegetables and meats. Kimchi is served at nearly every meal.

A staple in Korean cuisine, kimchi is a traditional side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables, most commonly Napa cabbage and Korean radishes, with a variety of seasonings, including chili powder, scallions, garlic, ginger, fermented bean paste, soy sauce and pepper flakes. It is somewhat spicy but is considered one of the healthiest foods in the world.

“When people try our food, they like it, but my problem is getting them to try it,” admitted Byungho Kwon, 53, who operates Chicko Tako, a Korean food stand in the Market at the Fareway (formerly the Chestnut Hill Farmers Market, which is undergoing a significant revival because of all the dramatic improvements made in recent years by owners Ron and Lindsey Pete). The stand has been the first one to the left of the main entrance for four-and-a-half years, but it was taken over by Kwon and his wife, Hyunsook, just two months ago.

The main reason many Americans are reluctant to eat Korean food — and Indian food as well — is that they assume the spiciness will be incendiary, which is illogical because a customer can always ask that the spices be toned down.

For many centuries before refrigeration, strong spices were used around the world to mask the unpleasant taste of meat, fish and other foods that were way past prime time. There is a reason why explorers risked their lives to bring back these spices from the Far East. Today, however, the more mild spices from the Orient are simply used to enhance flavors. “We can make the food as mild or as spicy as people want,” said Kwon.

One of the many excellent dishes at Chicko Tako is Bi Bim Bap, a traditional Korean rice dish of steamed vegetables such as carrots, spinach, Romaine and bean sprouts with a choice of beef, pork, chicken or mushrooms for just $12.50.

In their native town of Seoul, Korea, Kwon worked in his father’s advertising agency for 25 years while his wife was a chef and co-owner of a Korean restaurant for 10 years. In 2000 Hyunsook came to Philadelphia, where her father already lived, “to make a better life for our children.” From 2000 to 2007, Byungho spent six months each year in Philly and the other six months in Seoul.

In 2007, Mr. Kwon came here full-time and opened Euphoria, a coffee and sandwich shop at 2nd and Girard Ave. in Northern Liberties. The couple, who now live in the Blue Bell area, ran Euphoria for 10 years, but the landlord would not renew the lease because he wanted to sell the building. So they looked for a new location for a business, even as far away as San Francisco, but they finally settled on the Market at the Fareway, where they have seven years remaining on a lease.

“We make all the food ourselves from scratch,” said Kwon. “We kept the same menu that was here before but added some items like our secret sauce and our Korean dumplings. There was no reason for big changes.”

Kwon spoke no English when he came to the U.S., and for three or four years he was reluctant to speak to customers at Euphoria, but he finally learned enough English to communicate — and, of course, the smiles of both Kwons are also a very effective means of communication.

Customer reviews for Chicko Tako online have been almost unanimously euphoric. On yelp.com, 31 reviewers have given them an average rating of 4.5 out of 5. The latest review, from Roslyn L. on Oct. 5, stated: “This place is amazing! It has a great location because it’s in a market with a brewery. You can grab a bite, something to drink and do your weekly grocery shopping. I mean, who doesn’t like beer and chicken wings? There are a lot of places to choose from for food, but I was so glad I chose Chicko Tako. The service is great; they always greet you with warm smiles and are super-friendly. The food comes out really fast, too. I ordered the garlic chicken wings and bibimbap. The bibimbap had a nice flavor to it and … is really filling. The chicken wings are some of the best I’ve ever had. The sauce on the wings is to die for, and they are so crispy. I will definitely be back soon and recommend that you try it out, too. You will not be sorry.”

For more information: 267-567- 7133 or chickotako.com

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