101 E. Chapel Hill Street, Durham
The chef behind acclaimed M Sushi, M Kokko, and M Tempura will open a new restaurant, M Pocha, in downtown Durham on July 2.
M Pocha will serve small plates primarily inspired by Korean street food, though chef Mike Lee says he tries not to limit himself to one cuisine.
“The best way to describe it is ‘food we like to eat when we get drunk,’” says Lee, who is Korean. “Whether the food itself is Asian or Hispanic or something else is sort of beside the point.”
Lee is taking over the spot at the intersection of East Chapel Hill and West Main Streets, formerly occupied by The Cupcake Bar, which closed last August after ten years in business. Like Lee’s M Kokko, the space is tiny—it only seats about thirty-five people—and has a simultaneously hip and homey atmosphere, with mood lighting, a large communal table, an open kitchen, and wide windows that face the street.
Pocha is short for pojanmacha, a Korean word describing a tented cart on wheels that serves street food and alcoholic drinks. Over the years, the pojanmacha concept has been modernized and is now more commonly used in brick-and-mortar locations. Lee says the cramped nature of the space makes it perfect for pojanmacha.
“Every dish is supposed to be shared. You’re going to get messy with each other,” Lee says. “We’re basing the entire concept on dining with friends and family, or even strangers, and having fun while you’re having some drinks.”
M Pocha will offer a variety of wines and beers, and will also be Lee’s first restaurant with a full cocktail bar. The featured cocktails are designed to offset the spiciness of the food with tangy and sweet flavors—one comprises grapefruit juice, honeysuckle vodka, lemongrass syrup, and Durham Distillery’s Conniption gin, while another is simply house-made horchata with a rye kick.
“If I go to a taco shop, horchata is a nice drink to have after a spicy meal, to tone it down,” Lee says.
M Pocha’s menu will likely change during the restaurant’s first few weeks of service, as Lee responds to feedback from customers before selecting mainstays. Current menu items include roasted brussels sprouts with bacon; classic Korean-style dumplings with ground pork and chili oil; crispy fried shrimp with a green papaya and mango salad; steamed buns filled with sautéed pork belly, minty perilla leaves, and a Thai-spiced cucumber salad; grilled short ribs; and kimchi stew, which Lee says is his version of what Koreans call “army stew.”
“Army stew came from the Korean War, when the United States Army would hand out leftover lunch meats and canned meats to the starving Korean soldiers,” Lee says. “Everything the army gave them, they would make into soup.”
Lee’s stew stays true to its roots, featuring kimchi and a variety of meats—including a hot dog decoratively carved to look like a blooming flower as a garnish.
So what’s next for Lee? He says he has six more concepts to open in the Triangle, and then, once he builds the financial backing, he hopes to launch a worldwide franchise—the first global food chain that is 100 percent nonprofit.
“Before I die, I want to see it bigger than McDonald’s,” Lee says, “producing billions of dollars a year and helping wherever is needed, like our local school systems.”
After the franchise is up and running, Lee imagines dialing back his own role in the business—passing on leadership of his smaller restaurants to long-time employees and going back to cook at M Sushi, his first Durham restaurant, full-time.
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