After nearly 30 years of making kimchi, bulgogi and japchae for countless friends all over Maine, Bangor resident Changsu Kristopher Lee is ready to bring his homemade Korean dishes to his new restaurant, Korean Dad.
Lee, who moved to the U.S. from South Korea in 1994, said Korean Dad — which he and his daughter, Alexa Farron, plan to open this spring at 97 Center St. — will be a casual, homespun place where he and his family will serve up Korean classics.
“My dad loves to cook. It’s in his family,” Farron said. “And he’s my best friend. He’s my Korean dad, which is why we called it that. So when you come to eat, you’re eating dad’s cooking.”
In addition to his homemade kimchi, Lee plans to serve up well-known Korean dishes like bulgogi (grilled, marinated beef), bibimbap (rice topped with meat, vegetables and sauces), and japchae (stir-fried glass noodles with meat and vegetables, which Lee says is a “party food”).
Korean Dad will be Bangor’s first Korean restaurant, and the only Korean restaurant in Maine north of Portland, in addition to the recently announced Seoul Shack food stand, which will offer Korean food once a month at the United Farmers Market in Belfast.
The location at 97 Center St. has housed several other restaurants in recent years, including Jamaican Vybez, a Jamaican restaurant that was open between 2015 and 2018, and before that, Wo’s Barbecue, which was open from 2010 to 2012.
Lee’s path to the U.S. began in the early 1990s. After finishing up his compulsory military service in South Korea, Lee knew what his next step would be. Inspired by the American friends he’d made while serving in the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, he wanted to move to the U.S. and learn English.
Instead of moving to cities with large Korean populations like New York or Los Angeles, however, Lee and his wife, Juyoung, wanted to move somewhere more remote, where they could learn English and immerse themselves in American culture. That place turned out to be Presque Isle, where Lee got his bachelor’s degree at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and where they lived for the next six years; Lee later got his master’s degree in business at Husson University.
It was in Presque Isle that Lee developed his skills in the kitchen, making Korean food for potluck dinners with friends.
“People up there weren’t really exposed to a lot of diversity, so they were very curious about us,” Lee said. “We thought we should try cooking Korean food for them, and people ended up loving it. They wanted us to cook it all the time.”
Lee now teaches mathematics and business at Eastern Maine Community College, while his wife is a biology professor at the University of Maine at Augusta. Outside of his professional life, however, he’s still cooking up a storm for friends and family, as well as finding time to volunteer at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, where he also brings Korean dishes to share with clients.
Eventually, he and Alexa hatched a plan to bring his food to the masses, and have been planning their restaurant since last year. Though opening a restaurant during the pandemic hasn’t been easy — restaurant sales in the Bangor region have been down by a quarter since the start of the pandemic — both father and daughter think their family-centric restaurant is the kind of thing pandemic-weary diners are looking for.
“There certainly have been challenges,” Farron said. “Still, we believe that people want to experience new foods, and seek out something that would make them feel happy.”
The father-daughter pair are presently renovating the space at 97 Center St., and they hope to be open by mid-spring. They plan to keep their menu small, so as to focus on making a handful of dishes really, really well.
“We want to take it slow. It’s not fancy food. It’s home cooking,” Lee said.