This morning, at about 11 a.m., Sun Ok Chung will stand where she always stands – at the stove in the small kitchen of O-bok restaurant on South Tacoma Way. Today is the 20th anniversary of her Korean restaurant.
At that stove is where she's stood just about every morning – yes, even today, on Mother's Day – since 1989 when she opened O-bok, one of the first Korean restaurants in Tacoma. She rarely closes her restaurant, serving now a second generation of customers at the restaurant that was the first in the area to bring Korean tabletop barbecue to Tacoma diners.
"She's at the restaurant for almost 12 hours a day, for close to 365 days a year," said her daughter, Hyun Choi. Chung is the restaurant's only cook.
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Pictured here: Hyun Choi and her mother Sun Ok Chung.
A rare exception for closure is a family wedding or a few special holidays. "You know how you stand with my mother if she closes the restaurant for you," said Choi with a laugh.
For Mother's Day today, Choi said she had to talk her mother into brunch to celebrate. "It has to be early," her mother told Choi – so Chung could make it to the restaurant to open on time.
Chung, a single mother of three, moved to Tacoma from Seoul in 1980 after family settled here. She sewed for a local company then worked for a chicken farm. The operators of a local Korean restaurant, Hyang Chon in Tillicum, heard she could cook homestyle Korean comfort food and asked her to work at the restaurant once a week. Chung had owned a homemade restaurant in Seoul, a small place serving just a few specialties, such as soondae (pork sausage) and haejang(a spicy beef dish).
While cooking at Hyang Chon she began imagining her own restaurant. But with three children to raise, it wasn't simple. She worked hard, her daughter said, sometimes dawn to late night, to save money. She borrowed seed money from friends, and family helped her raise more. She opened the restaurant in 1989, just a few months ahead of Chung Ki Wa, which is across the street.
Chung believes she is the only original owner and cook left of the many Korean restaurants that opened around the same time as her, or shortly after, along the stretch of South Tacoma Way known as Koreatown. Her family said it's no surprise to them that she's remained in business for so long. "You never leave with less than a full stomach, and the feeling that you've been fed by family, or the Korean family that adopted you," said Choi.
Choi remembers when she was attending Tulane University in New Orleans, her mother worried her daughter was not eating well. "I made rice and some egg and I thought I was eating pretty well, but my mother thought I was going to starve," said Choi. "She got together a 20 pound bag of bulgogi and kimchi and marinated meats. She froze it and sent it overnight to me," said Choi, recalling the memory of introducing all her college friends to their first taste of Korean food. "When she went to my graduation, all my friends felt like they knew her because she already had fed them," said Choi.
Where: 8600 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Tuesdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays, 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays