Skip to main content

Changing the narrative around Korean cuisine in D.C.

Hear more from the restaurant owners as we take a deeper dive into their stories.

To many in the Washington, D.C. area, Yesoon Lee is known as the godmother of Korean cuisine. As chef at Mandu, she brought Korean food to the city at a time when it was not widely embraced, her son said—challenging misconceptions of what a Korean restaurant could be.

But to chef Danny Lee, she’s actually family. Danny and his mom, Yesoon, have been in business for 16 years and cooking together for much longer. As a kid, Danny would help Yesoon feed a constant stream of family and friends by folding mandu—Korean dumplings—at the kitchen table almost every night. After Danny’s father died, Yesoon franchised a Chinese restaurant to support the family, and Danny watched as she incorporated Korean specials on the menu. “That is where I really learned a lot about the food industry and also about small business,” he said.

In 2006, the mother-and-son duo pooled their knowledge and passion to make a lifelong dream come true: cooking homestyle dishes at Mandu, the first full-service Korean restaurant in the city. Danny has since opened two more concepts in Washington with his restaurant group, The Fried Rice Collective: Anju, offering Korean-inspired bar snacks and pub food, and Chiko, a fast-casual, Chinese-Korean restaurant and James Beard Award semifinalist.

What started out as a desire to share his mom’s cooking became a personal journey for Danny, both in rediscovering treasured dishes of his childhood and gaining national recognition for concepts of his own. Below, Danny discusses working with his mother, the evolution of Korean American cuisine, and more.

How did you get your start in the restaurant business, or going back even further, your interest in food?  

My father passed away when I was in high school and when my sister was in college. My mom had to find a way to support her family, so she decided to turn her ability to cook into a way for our family to survive. She first helped my aunt at a 24/7 convenience store making deli sandwiches. Then she had the opportunity to franchise a local Chinese restaurant chain, and she turned that into a successful small business.  

I get asked all the time where I get my work ethic from, and it’s very clear it’s from my mother. If my father hadn’t passed away, I’m not sure if I would actually be in this industry or have this career currently. It started a chain of events where our family needed to come together and work as hard as we could to make it to the next day, and I ended up developing a real passion and love for this industry and for cooking.  

Being born in America, it was also in a way healing for me to connect to my Korean heritage through learning how to prepare Korean food and research Korean cuisine. I would think about dishes my father always asked my mom to make for him or dishes I could remember craving as a child, and then find ways to make them for myself at home, researching as many materials I could find. I still do that to this day and use that process when thinking about new menu ideas across all our restaurants.  

Describe the process of opening your first restaurant, Mandu.

Back then, there were no full-service Korean restaurants in Washington D.C., so it was risky. We were not sure if we were capable of taking my mom’s homestyle Korean dishes and forming a whole, full-service restaurant out of them. We stumbled out of the gate simply because we weren’t ready. The food wasn’t up to par, the service was confused, I was lost. We were very, very close to failure, and the relationship between my mom and I was deteriorating. We are both very stubborn, and I was especially overconfident.

One snowy day, we got into a massive argument that ended up being a blessing. We finally took the time to sit down and address all of our issues and problems and talked through each.  Ultimately, we decided to collaborate together in the kitchen and from there, things really took off. 

What’s it been like to work with your mother? 

Ever since we had that serious talk, we were able to collaborate freely with each other, and the identity of Mandu really came into focus. Our business quickly turned around because of that. To this day, we freely discuss any issues one of us has so that we can work on that issue together to put it behind us and move forward. I now realize that it was and still is a huge blessing to be able to spend that much time with my mother. Not many people my age can say that they’re able to talk and see their own mother as often as I do, and I cherish that.  

Owning restaurants is no joke—it is a brutal lifestyle. It’s not lost on me that my mother was doing it by herself working 14 hour days, seven days a week, and then coming home when I was in high school or on college break to make me dinner with the largest smile on her face. So now I try to turn the tables and go to her house and cook for her as much as I can, but she never lets me.

In your episode of Take Out with Lisa Ling, Yesoon is described as the godmother of Korean cuisine. How would you describe her impact on the D.C. area at large?  

Korean food, in general, hadn’t really hit the mainstream in the U.S. when we first opened Mandu in 2006. I was fortunate to have grown up in the D.C. area, which has a huge Korean community and areas like Annandale and Centreville that are densely packed with Korean businesses. But in D.C. itself and with non-Koreans in the area, Korean food remained a bit obscure. 

My mom’s cooking at Mandu really helped our guests have an introduction to not just Korean cuisine, but to Korean culture as well. She was and is very generous with her knowledge—never hesitating to answer any questions chefs in the area had about specific preparations or recipes or even talking to guests at the restaurant about food or life in Korea.  

Bibimbap can be thought of as a generic dish because of how common it is, but that one dish introduced thousands of guests in D.C. to Korean cuisine. And, when done correctly, it showcases the beauty and harmonious nature of Korean cuisine: the respect and individual treatment of each vegetable, the cooking of the rice, the balance of colors, the marinade of the bulgogi and the char of the grill, the spice and fermentation of the gochujang—it’s all there in one dish. 

That one dish and the recipe my mother created for it at Mandu paved the way in D.C. for a lot of Asian restaurants and chefs, me included. It broke the misconception that “traditional” or “authentic” Asian restaurants couldn’t work in a city.

This feels weird to say now, but looking back, that one dish and the recipe my mother created for it at Mandu paved the way in D.C. for a lot of Asian restaurants and chefs, me included. It broke the misconception that “traditional” or “authentic” Asian restaurants couldn’t work in a city.

You mentioned that Mandu had a rough start. How did you make it through that time?  

We were very worried that certain traditional Korean dishes, like tteokbokki, wouldn’t translate well in the city. So we held back a bit and the business suffered because we doubted ourselves. I am always the first to admit that the first few months were brutal, and it was simply because we were not good, plain and simple. The food was flat—it was missing inspiration. But as we started to work together in the kitchen, talk about what we actually wanted to serve, and prepare the food that I especially remembered growing up in my mom’s kitchen, we became stronger as a restaurant and we really started to build something special.  

You also have to keep in mind that even though it seems fairly recent, back in 2006, D.C. was still very much a corporate steakhouse city—not the dense and diverse restaurant scene you see now. What we were trying to do was to create a small, independent restaurant that catered to its neighborhood and just happened to serve Korean cuisine. I wanted the service to be full of energy and fun while also being knowledgeable about the menu. 

A lot of Asian restaurants back then didn’t really feature an extensive bar program, care about curating a nice wine list, creating a custom playlist, etc. There was almost a template that an Asian restaurant owner had to follow, regardless of how traditional the menu was, and if you deviated, it was deemed “fusion” or “inauthentic.” We set out from the beginning to challenge that notion, and I think that threw some people off, unfortunately. 

I honestly had a point where I was fed up with those prejudices of what being a ‘real’ Asian or Korean restaurant means to some people, and decided that we would do what we felt was right. That was a pivotal point for us as a family and as a business, and we never looked back.

They would come in and listen to the music, see a packed bar, be greeted by a non-Korean host, and automatically have the preconception that we weren’t a “real” Korean restaurant, like the ones in the suburbs or the ones in Koreatown, Los Angeles. I wanted to change that narrative that pigeonholed Asian restaurants for so long. I honestly had a point where I was fed up with those prejudices of what being a “real” Asian or Korean restaurant means to some people, and decided that we would do what we felt was right. That was a pivotal point for us as a family and as a business, and we never looked back.

How did you decide to expand your business from Mandu to Anju?

The concept of Anju actually started at the downtown location of Mandu back in 2013. I held a series of monthly late night dinners at Mandu, where I would invite some of my best chef friends to come join us in the kitchen after our dinner service ended and make Korean-inspired bar snacks late at night, paired with special cocktails. It became such a huge hit that the idea of opening a concept called Anju was always in the back of my mind. When [the original Mandu location burned down in a fire], I talked to Scott [Drewno, my business partner], and we almost immediately agreed that Anju would be perfect at that location, as well as bringing on [Executive Chef Angel Barreto] to lead the kitchen there.  

Every business or restaurant is unique, but Anju is extremely special. The history that my family has in that one building is crazy: the trials of the [Mandu] opening, turning the corner and opening a second location, the fire that destroyed it, reopening by collaborating with my family and new business partner, my wife (whom I met there when it was Mandu) doing all of the design, etc. Life really comes full circle sometimes, and Anju is the perfect example of that.

From your perspective, how does your food connect people? 

I sometimes like to describe Korean food as comfort food, in the sense that if you’ve never had Korean food before and you try certain dishes for the first time, it brings you back to a warm place in your memory. It has the ability to transport an individual to fond memories of when they were young and needed comfort and a dish that was made for them provided that warmth.  

At Mandu, we see that reaction often when guests eat our dak juk, a very homestyle Korean chicken and rice porridge. Every culture has a similar dish, and it really makes me happy when I see someone make that first, immediate smile after taking their first bite.

How have you built community through your work?  

The Korean American community in this area basically defines me—in a way, the community helped raise me. When my father died, to see the support these friends provided to my mom and our family, at a point where we felt ashamed to ask for it, was amazing. I will never forget that, and I will forever feel indebted to these families. 

Because of that appreciation, I try to help our community in direct ways where I feel I can be of most help. For instance, in the beginning of the pandemic, there were a lot of uncertainties regarding business loans, PPP, SBA loans, etc. I am fortunate that I am connected to a lot of information and am able to understand a fair amount of it. However, a lot of that information wasn’t being passed down to small business owners in marginalized communities, so I tried as best I could to reach out and inform businesses on my own or to use social media to inform others to do the same.  

During the recent rise in anti-Asian rhetoric and anti-Asian hate, I became incredibly vocal about the need to rise up and protect our communities. I honestly did not know what else to do but to be as vocal about these issues as possible, hoping to shed light on these issues that were seemingly being ignored. 

To hear more from Danny and Yesoon on the history of Korean food in the Washington, D.C. area, watch their episode on HBO Max’s Take Out with Lisa Ling.

Photos from LeadingDC

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

Business resources, delivered to your inbox

Get the latest blog content, info on virtual events, and the occasional freebie.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

We care about your data. Read about it in our Privacy Policy.