Jang Mo Gip Is Like Mother, Like Daughter
About a month ago, I sat down for dinner with Lauryn Chun, head of Mother-in-Law's Kimchi, her attempt to mainstream the Korean staple. She has received much rightful media love for the business (shortened and hipster-ized to MILKimchi), with write-ups in The New York Times, O magazine and Elle, partly due to Chun's social-networking savvy, but mostly because MILKimchi's offerings—furious, addicting, nuanced, lovely—stand far above what's offered nationally. But Chun didn't want to pitch me on her product or, rather, her company: She wanted to defend the honor of her mother.
We met at the incubator for MILKimchi, Jang Mo Gip, one of the oldest restaurants in Little Seoul. It relocated a couple of months ago to a more-spacious location than the closet it occupied for more than 20 years. Run by Lauryn's mother since the start, Jang Mo Gip, which means "mother-in-law's house," is legendary in Orange County's Korean community for its soups, steaming seas in earthenware pots ringed by platters of its other hallmark: Orange County's best kimchi, pickled and spiced roots and napa cabbage Chun now sells as MILKimchi with the loving approval and help of her mother. But success breeds imitators, and there are now at least four other Jang Mo Gips in Orange County, none related to the Chuns.
"They just try to confuse people with what my mother created," Chun remarked, as we drank soju and ate. With Chun's help, Jang Mo Gip is finally trying to make inroads with non-Korean audiences: a spacious, classy restaurant, with flat-screen televisions and translations of a menu that's still tiny—just 12 items, if that, almost all soups. But the flavors haven't changed: the haejangguk (translating as "soup to chase a hangover") can still revive the worst lush with a haymaker of pork, garlic, ginger, mushrooms and wisps of short rib, a palate punch that packs more flavor in one spoonful than most restaurants can offer in a cauldron. The sulungtang is even better: fatty slices of beef brisket lurk in a pool of broth as white as chalk, mostly because it's created by simmering ox tail, bone marrow and beef bones for hours. Its assertive beefiness makes the finest pho seem as related to cow as tofurky.
Though Chun now lives in New York, her heart is still at Jang Mo Gip—a small sign for MILKimchi stands outside the restaurant, next to Jang Mo Gip's marquee. "It's great to let the country know about what my mom does here," she said. Then Chun saw her mom deal with a new wave of customers, and like the good daughter she is, she went to work.
This column appeared in print as "Like Mother, Like Daughter."
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