It’s been more than a decade since Joyce Moon’s family took over Seoul Garden in St. Ann, Missouri. At the time, it was the only restaurant offering all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue in the St. Louis area. Moon, who was in high school, remembers it getting really busy really quickly. “There was no investment money, no funding from the outside; it was just our family and almost a hole in the wall,” she says. “But the place was packed every weekend. We were just trying to keep up, learning how to handle the massive influx of people as we went. It took a few years for us to adjust to such a business boom.”
In 2017, the family opened a second location of Seoul Garden on Olive Boulevard, and this past August, they turned the original location into Pocha STL, which features Korean street food, pub grub and Asian fusion fare as opposed to the more traditional Korean cuisine served at Seoul Garden. Although she’s the manager of both restaurants, Moon says for the longest time she just called herself “the owners’ daughter.” “This is my family’s thing – it’s our way of making a living – so it’s weird to give myself a title.”
Pocha is short for pojangmachas, which are eateries based out of small tents that were once a fixture of South Korean nightlife. How does Pocha STL reflect that concept? From my experience, pojangmachas are really down-to-earth and reflect the feel of Seoul city life. Anyone from salarymen to blue-collar workers to college students can pop into a tent and grab a bite and a nightcap. The pubs in college towns in South Korea are always booming as well, with people playing Korean drinking games; it’s really loud and energetic and just another level of social bonding. Considering these two concepts, I decided I wanted to provide a comfortable and casual space where people can come and have that kind of fun, diverse experience. I think it’s hard to find pubs or drinking spaces that cater to a culturally different energy. You have Middle Eastern hookah bars and Japanese izakayas, and at Pocha STL, you have the Korean pub. Our interior and décor, especially the murals throughout the dining room, reflect Korean culture and touch on that Korean street theme – I use some imagery of Korea in the 1970s because that’s when my parents were young partygoers.
What kind of research did you do to develop the menu at Pocha STL? I was inspired by the ever-expanding culinary and street food scenes in Korea. Whether they first appear on a Korean drama or YouTube, so many Korean food trends go viral. Army stew, for example, is a type of jjigae with ham, sausage, Spam, baked beans, kimchi, gochujang and ramen. Historically, it originated on army bases; it’s been around for decades, but it went viral because of Korean mukbang, which are super popular eating shows where people live stream themselves eating these huge meals. Korean hot dogs – which are more like corn dogs – have also become a big thing, and we’re trying to figure out how to do them at Pocha STL. I take these ideas, as well as ingredients from other Asian cuisines such as Japanese udon and some Chinese-Korean staples, and incorporate my mom’s expertise in traditional Korean cuisine. At Pocha STL, all of our meats come from Seoul Garden, so it’s the same recipes that my mom uses there, and she also makes foundational items for Pocha STL, including broths, stocks and sauces. You’ll find her in both places – you really can’t take her out of it.
Your family has deep roots in the Korean food scene in St. Louis. How have you seen it evolve over the years, and how would you like to see it continue to grow? In the decade that we’ve been a part of the St. Louis community, we’ve seen so many Korean and Korean-inspired restaurants and cafés pop up. I love that Korean food isn’t just a niche market here anymore. I’m not gonna lie, I think Korean entertainment like K-pop has boosted people’s awareness of Korean culture and food, which has helped us make these restaurants work. I would love to see a greater diversity of genres within Korean food in the area – like restaurants that specialize in a specific dish or style. I know it’s hard to narrow down your menu because you want to represent Korean cuisine as a whole – and you want to have “safe” options for people who don’t want to take a deep dive into Korean flavors – but I’d love to see more authentic offerings that haven’t been watered down so that people can get to know everything Korean cuisine has to offer.
Pocha STL, 10678 Saint Charles Rock Road, St. Ann, Missouri, 314.429.4255, pocha-stl.com
Seoul Garden, 10441 Olive Blvd., Creve Coeur, Missouri, 314.569.4123, koreanbbqstl.com