Push your way through doors of Dae Bak Wang Mandoo on any given day, and you’ll find Jimmy Chin in the kitchen, working. Not “working” like punching the clock. Not working like standing at his station. Past that counter, over a cloud of steam, you’ll find Jimmy Chin WORKING.
Head down over a cutting board, caked in wheat flour, Jimmy’s kneading dough. Jimmy’s checking broth. Jimmy’s cutting veggies. Jimmy’s making noodles. Concentration creasing his brow, knotting his jaw. Before you see him back there, just the first step through the door, it might be easy to lump Dae Bak Wang Mandoo in with any other hip lunch spot in the Puget Sound.
Brightly lit eating area, Korean shows on the television. I mean, a lot of people do noodle soups, and there are plenty of dumpling shops. One look at Chin behind that counter, though, and you should know that this is going to be different. This is going to be the kind of place where the chef gets his hands in the spices. Knows the feel and smell of them. The kind of place where the ingredients are like a brushstroke, bold and assertive on the canvas. Where the menu is music on the speakers in a record shop. Carefully curated, staunchly stood behind. Deliberate.
In those other places, you might find waiters who don’t know the specials. Cheap sauces on the tables and wilted veggies on your plate. All the clumsy blunderings of a staff that’s phoning it in.
Paying the rent, picking up paychecks. Guns for hire. Whatever keeps the coffers full, and the landlords happy.
Not here though. Jimmy’s back there in the trenches of his little kitchen, breathing in the heat off the steamers, cutting noodles by hand like a freedom fighter. Going in early, staying up late.
Doing things right and with pride. Chin got his start in his family’s deli at the age of six.
Wandered off to work in banking for a bit, which paid well, but didn’t keep the lights on behind his eyes. When he finally burned out at that, he turned back to food. This place isn’t a job for him. It’s a passion.
“Why Federal Way?” I asked him in the neon orange glow of the seating area.
“Reminded me of home,” Chin said, his eyes darting back to the kitchen like a father with babies in the next room.
“Reminded of home” is the kind of thing that you’ll find chiseled into the walls of Dae Bak Wang Mandoo’s Yelp page, flickering across the faces of the people sitting behind the food he’s cared for. Cold noodle soup with a coil of handmade potato noodles at the bottom of it, chewy but delicate because of the time that went into them. Seafood noodle soup broth that is buttery and rich the way only something that’s been obsessed over can be. Wheat flour dough stretched over earthy pork to make a dumpling the size of a softball. Kimchi like a firecracker. Pickled radishes just sweet enough to put the fires out. Textures and smells and flavors that are infused with the kind of time and attention that tends to remind people of a home kitchen, which isn’t an easy sensation to recreate. It takes good ingredients and dedication, and, more than anything, it takes an owner who isn’t scared of working hard. Fortunately, if you push through the doors of Dae Bak Wang Mandoo on any given day and take a peek behind that counter, that’s exactly what you’ll find Jimmy Chin doing.
Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.