When family is your retirement plan | The Triangle

When family is your retirement plan

Crunchik’n is a place full of family and Korean cooking

Owners John (right) and Jen (left) Choi are the father-daughter team behind Crunchik’n, a Korean restaurant that is bringing together family staples with an undying approach to their quality of food. (Photograph by Tosh Farrell for The Triangle.)

There’s a saying about retirement from author Bruce Linton’s book “Fatherhood: The Journey from Man to Dad” that encapsulates the inherent value our life has when we retire — “We work all our lives so we can retire – so we can do what we want with our time – and the way we define or spend our time defines who we are and what we value.”

So when John Choi retired from his job as a theology professor — a job he had back in South Korea and in his adopted hometown of Edison, New Jersey — he knew how he wanted to spend his time: he wanted to open a restaurant.

He decided he was going to open up a Korean restaurant with his daughter Jen Choi. John embarked on a two-year learning journey, traveling back and forth between Korea and Edison multiple times. He tested recipes that he learned from his parents, and was handed down recipes that he remembers eating at his grandparents’ houses, letting his family history serve as the foundation for his burgeoning dream.

But what was more to a restaurant than the food? To John, it was figuring out the balance of not sacrificing quality with staying true to his moral compass.

John focused on learning how to eliminate the usage of chemicals in his foods. Since coming to America, he had found American foods to be far too processed. He wanted to be able to tell his customers what he put into each dish, but he also wanted to be proud of the food he made.

After finalizing a menu that focused primarily on traditional Korean dishes — with a few curveballs in there to cater to lovers of Asian fusion and more common American dishes — along with a plan of attack for how to source his ingredients, John Choi was ready to take on the restaurant world with Jen.

There was just one small obstacle: Jen was fresh out of graduate school at Johns Hopkins University and was preparing to be a public health specialist.

So, how did John Choi convince his daughter to drop her blooming career and join him in the restaurant business? Well, it took a lot less convincing than he expected.

Jen admitted, “I really wasn’t sure about my career, to be honest.” With only a little nudging needed, she decided to join her dad in making Korean food for the masses.

In 2017 the Choi family took their passed-down recipes and their love for food 110 miles south. They opened the doors of their restaurant Crunchik’n on the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey, and began serving authentic Korean food to the beachcombers, tourists and local New Jersey residents alike.

The great author C.S. Lewis has his own take on retirement, saying, “You are never too old to set a new goal or dream a new dream.”

While the dynamic duo of the Choi family had begun their new adventure into the world of restauranteering, the future really was one big mystery, leaving them wishing on the hopes of a dream. They didn’t know if their gamble would pay off, but they had faith that it would.

Little did the two of them know just how popular they were going to become. Jen recounted that many of their customers their first year urged them to open another Crunchik’n closer to a big city.

During the beginning of 2018, the two began to discuss the possibility of another location. Jen was the cautious one, admitting, “I really thought at first we should just stay in Ocean City.”

If you walk on South 11th Street by Jefferson Hospital you’ll be sure to see the bright red lettering of Crunchik’n. (Photograph by Tosh Farrell for The Triangle.)

But John, and eventually with a little more nudging, Jen, took another leap. The two began planning a location in the convenient city of Philadelphia — a mere 66 miles away from Edison, and also home to many of their hungry customers. After flourishing in the summer of 2018, they were able to focus on bringing Korean food to Washington Square West.

The late American author John Anthony West once said, “Don’t act your age in retirement. Act like the inner young person you have always been.”

To John Choi, opening Crunchik’n was the closest thing he could do to reconnect to his childhood.

When it came to embracing the “inner young person,” he found that making the foods of his youth connected his older, wiser self to the days when he would eat dumplings and chicken by the pound, surrounded by his family. The goal was to bridge the gap between Korean food and an American consumer base. Now in Philadelphia, his family’s cuisine could be showcased on a much bigger stage.

John wants everyone to experience Korean food for what it’s worth and finds that it’s the black sheep of Asian cooking. “Everyone knows Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian food, but no one really knows Korean.”

Dishes like japchae — a sweet potato noodle — or kimchi — a fermented cabbage side known for its probiotic health benefits — aren’t household names like fried rice and spring rolls. Korean food typically features an expertly crunchy, yet surprisingly light, twice-fried chicken, but it’s never talked about when one of the staples of American southern comfort food is fried chicken.

Everyone loves a specific kind of dumpling, but what about the lightly fried and filled Korean ones with only three to four pleats? What about bulgogi beef and its perfect combination of umami and sweet flavors? Do they get no spotlight?

With this in mind, John and Jen called an audible and made an ambitious play — Korean fusion dishes. “Not everything is fully Korean,” Jen laughed, “but everything Korean is as authentic as it can be.”

So if you want the Crunchball, a Korean take on the Italian staple arancini, you can have it. If you want to get a bulgogi beef melt sandwich, feel free. Heck, if you want Korean kimchi cheese fries, they’re offered. But keep in mind that the Korean parts of the dishes are the real deal.

The long and narrow space that is 212 South 11th Street used to belong to the familiar Hummus Grill — which can be found on 39th and Chestnut, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania — before switching hands to a new restaurant called Ugly Duckling in the fall of 2017.

But mere months after it opened, the sister restaurant to the popular spot Blue Duck closed, and by early 2018 the space was available for purchase again.

By the fall of 2018, John and Jen Choi found themselves with not only a successful boardwalk spot but also the opening of a true brick-and-mortar restaurant in Center City, Philadelphia.

But how do you build a community that you’re new to? How do you begin to succeed in a city such as Philadelphia, where centuries of history — and centuries of Italian and other immigrant cultures — already thrive?

You go where the locals go, and you begin to make some friends. For the Choi family, it meant finding someone who can make amazing dumplings for wholesale and getting on their good side.

“We have one lady who makes all of our dumplings for us,” Jen shared, “She’s been making dumplings for over 20 years, and she makes chicken, pork and kale & spinach dumplings.”

The small, crispy dumplings are a hit with many customers, but the real stars are those with kale & spinach.

“We get parents who order [the kale & spinach dumplings] for their kids because they know they will eat them,” Jen chuckled, “you’d never be able to tell!” After trying the famed kale & spinach dumplings for myself, the delicately fried dumpling is full of the decadent yet umami-forward flavor but also expertly hides the kale.

This secret dumpling lady — whose name wasn’t even given to me — will have to stay anonymous, but she will be revered through Crunchik’n’s menu for the time being.

The great James Beard once said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”

When John and Jen Choi make their family’s kimchi recipe that’s existed for close to a century, and bridge a cultural gap by serving someone their first-ever Korean experience, an entirely novel bond is made. It is a shared universal experience that cannot be created anywhere else, and they take pride in being the facilitators of the connection between food and share experiences.

And if there’s one thing the Choi family believes, it is that while food is inherently cultural, food is also quintessentially familial.

The most stellar example of this is the baked oven chicken dish that is served at Crunchik’n. A family recipe that dates back to John’s grandmother, the Choi baked oven chicken transcends continents, centuries and cultures all at once.

With a short rib sauce that takes ten hours alone to cook and simmer before being added to the chicken that is marinated for at least 24 hours, the depth of flavor in the dish is remarkable. It can be eaten on its own, as the protein of a combo rice bowl, or to follow Jen’s tip, “The oven chicken is best when it’s eaten with rice and nothing else.”

Fred Rogers, the television icon better known as Mr. Rogers, believes retirement isn’t the end-all-be-all as everyone makes it out to be.

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something,” Rogers quipped, “you’re at the beginning of something else.”

So when John Choi closed his teaching textbooks for the last time, the door to a new journey — with his daughter Jen — was already waiting.