Meet the man who brings traditional South Korean food to Colorado

Since JW Lee moved to Colorado 15 years ago, the South Korean-born chef in charge of Seoul Hospitality Group has served many flavors and dishes in his home country. In Aurora alone, Denverites can feast on late-night Korean food at ThankSool Pocha K, which offers amenities such as spicy stews and soju (a clear rice drink); A delicious dumpling bite in Seoul Mando; Or cook their own meats on the tabletop grills at Seoul K-BBQ and Hot Pot.

But Lee’s latest venture — which he opened at LoDO in 2020 and has expanded into an empire of three locations, including a brewery in Lafayette — is his fastest growing concept to date. For each outpost, Lee, who was born in Gangneung, South Korea, has created a menu that blends traditional Korean flavors like gochujang (chili pepper paste) and kimchi with American staples like sandwiches and french fries, all tied together. A common dish loved by both Americans and Koreans: fried chicken.

Lee has a long history in the hospitality industry and was trained in South Korea. He moved to the United States in the late 1990s, when he said that being a chef was not a thriving career in his home country. But he knew he could make a respectable career in the kitchen in the United States.

“When I was a chef in Korea, our country was still rather poor at the time, and the expectations as a chef weren’t really great,” Lee says.

He moved to California, which has a large Korean population, and took jobs at sushi restaurants there and in Chicago before moving to St. Louis to open his first wasabi sushi bar in 2003.

“So, at that time I decided that I wanted to be treated [respectably],” He says. “[So I thought]If I go to the United States, I can be one of those chefs, and then I [can] Realizing the American Dream.

In 2007, he brought Wasabi Sushi Bar to Lakewood, his first restaurant in Colorado. In 2016, he began serving ramen, sushi, and Japanese cuisine at his first minia noodle bar, which has since expanded to four locations throughout the metro area. In 2017, he was ready to dive into Korean cuisine and bought Seoul K-BBQ and Hot Pot. “I [felt] He tells me, “I can do more.” “I have more talent and ambition than sushi.”

Lee isn’t quite sure why—perhaps due to the global popularity of K-pop and the availability of Korean movies on streaming services like Netflix—but since then, interest in Korean food has grown, especially in Denver. Although a few Korean fried chicken restaurants have popped up in Aurora in the past five years, Lee wanted to open something downtown, away from the array of restaurants that exist. In 2020, Mono Mono opened on Blake Street, serving fried chicken dishes inspired by the crispy chicken that originated in South Korea.

Offers at Mon Mono Korean Fried Chicken. Photography by Hannah Morvai

In South Korea, fried chicken is just as ubiquitous as kimchi and soju. Comfort food may have been introduced to South Korea during the US military presence in the Korean War, but it was accelerated during the 1980s and 1990s when Korea was introduced to the rotisserie oven and the country’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken outposts opened. Around the same time, cooking oil and chicken also became more affordable, and the fried chicken franchises took off. Now it is said that there are twice as many fried chicken restaurants in the country as there are McDonald’s or Subway. Lee says the meal is a staple of the Korean way of life.

“Korean fried chicken for Koreans… it can be a meal, it can be a snack, it can be a friend of drinks, or beer,” he says. “It goes well with many different occasions.”

We asked Lee what he wish people knew about Korean fried chicken, and what to order at Mono Mono. Here are his suggestions.

Fried Chicken Paw at Mono Mono Korean Fried Chicken. Photography by Hannah Morvai

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Mono-fried chicken, like Korean bulgogi (thinly sliced, roast beef), is all about the marinade. After the chicken has been marinated for 24 hours, it is covered in a crunchy mixture or left in the skin to produce a crunchy, grainy bread.

“This is the main difference from other chicken restaurants,” Lee says. “A lot of chicken restaurants fry fresh chicken; not many times. But since I do Korean barbecue, this is all about the broth, so we came up with the idea for the seasoning.”

Guests can choose from an array of sauces to coat their bird—including soy garlic, hot and spicy, soy teriyaki, or hot teriyaki—or skip the sauce altogether for a plain fried chicken. Chicken is typically served either as a garnish on pillowy bao bread with hoisin and slaw, as a dish of plain and crunchy or sweet and sticky wings, or as a combination of fried and tender chicken thighs. Fans of mobile devices can order the jumper between two sims.

My favorite chicken: tenderloin and drumsticks, plain and crunchy, covered with spices. “It gives you a kick,” he says.

Kimchi Fries

Kimchi, a fiery fermented cabbage and radish dish, is one of the most popular foods in Korea and is usually served as a refreshing side to main dishes such as fried chicken or bulgogi. When Lee started opening Korean restaurants, he wanted to introduce more Korean meat to Americans. What better way than by fries? Lee says he was inspired by eating meaty nachos at a baseball game, which led him to create a fried basket topped with kimchi and topped with green onions, ole and bulgogi. Today, he says, kimchi fries are the most popular mono appetizer.

Items like kimchi fries (and the famous nacho bulgogi also in mono mono) serve up Korean food for those who might be hesitant or unfamiliar, Lee says. It’s an easy way to experience [the ingredients] Then if they [aren’t as] Afraid, they can try Korean barbecue, he says.

Spicy rice cake

Rice cakes in Mono Mono Korean Fried Chicken. Photography by Hannah Morvai

Rice cakes, steamed rice flour dough pieces, are one of the most revered foods in Korea. Lee used to eat it as a kid on his way home from school, and guests at Mono Mono can get the same experience with Lee-cooked rice cakes that have been cooked in gochujang sauce until infused with sweet and savory spices. “It’s very simple,” he tells me. “But it has a lot of flavor.”

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Beers at Mono Mono Korean Fried Chicken. Photography by Hannah Morvai

Fans of Korean fried chicken tend to agree: The best pairing for spicy and savory is cold, crisp beer, and Mono Mono has just begun brewing its own version at Lafayette location, which opened in early 2022. Although Lee only makes two suds of soap Homemade at the moment—a juicy, citrusy, misty IPA and crisp K-Pop Pils rice beer—both pair perfectly with a round of chicken.

1550 Blake Street; 3014 E. Colfax Ave; 599 cross d. Lafayette

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