Eye-catching food photos might be what patrons first glimpse when entering Mokomandy, an intriguing Sterling restaurant serving a whimsical blend of Korean and Cajun dishes. Of these, a colorful depiction of crab cake sliders must cause patrons to wonder: In a Korean-Cajun restaurant?
While the sliders are not presently on the menu, Executive Chef Daniel Stevens said they represent the way the kitchen and the owners take up the creative challenge to present memorable Korean-Cajun dishes that are a little offbeat. Who could ever forget delights such as Stevens’s wild boar bowl containing braised wild boar, pork kimchi, rice and a fried egg?
Why this gastronomic mix? The owner, Thaddeus Kim, is honoring his Korean heritage - hence “Mo” for modern and “Ko” for Korean - and his mother Mandy’s Cajun heritage, said Stevens. As unlikely as the melding is, the results are a credit to the culinary skills of Stevens, who interprets the flavors the family loves best.
“This is what I do. This is my passion,” he said.
The restaurant’s ongoing popularity and its two “Best 100 Restaurants in the U.S.” Diners' Choice designations from Open Table underscore how well Stevens has melded Cajun and Korean flavors.
Maryland native Stevens began his gastronomic journey early in life, summering with his grandparents on Cape Cod, where he picked vegetables from their garden, fished off the rocky shores and delved into the family’s classic cookbook collection. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), working off campus at three kitchen jobs and externing at the institute's Napa Valley campus.
Stevens, who landed the job three years ago after his graduation, said that working at Mokomandy has shaped and changed his culinary approach.
“Since I have worked here,” he said, “it is no longer just how the food looks on the plate. My work is now about building relationships with customers and staff members. Building a good team and getting the staff to grow professionally helps them to self-actualize. This is a learning kitchen.”
Stevens often strolls from table to table, confirming that customers feel respected and happy. He recounted how one couple arrived with an elderly couple in tow, and the older gentleman appeared quite confused about the dishes. Picking up on that, Stevens asked if he had any questions about the menu. In answer, the gentleman said what he really wanted was French onion soup. Fortunately, said Stevens, he had similar ingredients on hand and was able to create a reasonable facsimile.
While not every customer understands the Mokomandy brand, plenty are thrilled with what Stevens and crew create. The menu has evolved, he said, but it always meets a specific formula: the dish is not typical; the dish has Cajun influences; and the dish has Korean influences.
Recipes come together after Stevens conducts his own research, the staff and owner meet to swap ideas and plenty of thought experiments occur.
“Can we cook and prepare it easily? Is the recipe traditional enough?” he said. “Is it original enough? This way, we make the customers, the owners and the kitchen staff happy.”
Mokomandy, 20789 Great Falls Plaza #176, Sterling, VA. 571-313-0505. Open for dinner daily from 5 p.m. mokomandy.com
Kimchi Pancakes with Soy Vinegar
“The reason we like this recipe is because it is simple and great with beer (lager, koelsch, American pale ale), wine (Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier, California Chardonnay, Riesling, Syrah, Malbec) and cocktails (gin and tonic, Pimm’s Cup, ice cold Jinro Soju),” Chef Stevens said.
“I also thought, if you could master this simple recipe, you could easily whip it up for a snack or a side to other Korean barbecue experiments. Also, if you like these, there are many other Korean pancake recipes out there to play with.”
Servings about 6 sides/snacks
2 cups kimchi, store bought, chopped and drained
2 cups toasted sesame oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups room temperature water
1 egg, lightly beaten
Coarse sea salt to taste
¼ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup tamari soy sauce
Process and drain kimchi until it barely weeps through the sieve; set aside. Mix the sesame oil and the flour until it is crumbly like wet sand. Mix the egg and water, and incorporate into the flour mixture. Let the mixture rest for 10 to 30 minutes or more in the refrigerator. (It will keep for a few days.)
Preheat a griddle to 325 degrees or medium-high heat. Pour or spoon several thin small discs onto the griddle and gently place a hearty sprinkle of kimchi on each in an even layer. After 3-4 minutes, or when they sound as though they are crisply sizzling on the griddle, flip them for an additional 2 to 3 minutes to caramelize the kimchi. Mix the vinegar and soy sauce and place in a vessel for dipping or drizzling.
Serve, dip, eat, drink. Repeat.