The smell of kimchi filled the air along with the rattle of chopsticks. Rhythmic K-pop blared in the background as the usual cacophony of chitchat echoed around the tables.
It was a typical Saturday evening at Koco Table, the only Korean restaurant in Evanston. At the cashier, a well-built Asian man in jeans was counting the bills. Dong Uk Suh, 49, is a first-generation Korean immigrant—and this restaurant is his claim to the American Dream.
Suh first arrived in Wilmette, Illinois in 1988 as a Roosevelt University student majoring in computer science. 24 years later, he is now the proud owner of Koco Table, alluring the Evanston community with a taste of Korea.
“How did I end up a restaurant owner? Well, my wife’s an amazing cook,” said Suh.
The number of diners speaks for itself. A newborn restaurant only four months old, Koco Table is accepting many patrons.
Suh’s wife, Eun Jung Suh, is the sole creator of the menus and the recipes for Koco Table. From special fried shrimps to yookgaejang—a spicy soup containing vegetables, meat and vermicelli— everything is created by Eun Jung.
“There’s no shortcut for success with restaurants,” said Suh, “Tasty food and good service. That’s about it.”
Among his employees, Suh is known for his professionalism. Every morning at 11 a.m., Suh is always the first to open the restaurant, clean up the kitchen and lay out the tables.
“There are a lot of people who try to succeed by cheating,” said Harin Jang, a waitress at Koco Table, “Mr. Suh isn’t one of them. He has passion.”
Koco Table is more than just a delicious food joint to the Korean students at Northwestern University. It’s one of those places that provide the comfort and nostalgia in a place thousands of miles away from home.
“I go there at least once a week,” said Inje Hwang, a Northwestern freshman, “It’s as close as you can get to homeland food. Not quite your mother’s hot dish, you know, but it’s great to have access to Korean food so near your school.”
Suh knows almost all the Korean students who visit the restaurant weekly. As the students stream into the restaurant on Saturday evening, Suh can be seen greeting each of them at the counter, nodding his head in a dignified fashion. The students reply in the typical Korean way of bowing one’s head slightly down—a customary display of respect.
With a plate of kimchi and a hot bowl of noodles, Suh provides the Northwestern students with a brief culinary journey back to Korea, all within a five minute walk from the campus.
“Being right next to a university is quite fascinating,” said Suh, “You see familiar faces every day. And many of them aren’t just customers any more. You form this, kind of, a bond.”
Passion and honesty—those are the secret recipes to success according to Suh. Koco Table is the culmination of his dream to extend the Korean culture and cuisine into this American neighborhood.
“When I see people from different backgrounds and cultures come here and enjoy Korean food, I’m happy,” Suh said, “That’s what keeps me going.”