Visit Philadelphia or South Jersey, and chances are you’ll find the perfect hoagie or cheesesteak. But on both sides of the Delaware, a succulent sandwich has foodies thinking outside the bun.
Sammy Chon, a Korean-American, is making a name for himself in the race for the best koagie, a fusion of the legendary hoagie blended with Korean-style cuisine and served with warm meat, like a cheese-
Searching for the American dream, Chon’s family immigrated from Seoul to the United States in 1971, eventually settling in Cherry Hill. Raised in a multigenerational household that boasted many great cooks, Chon was exposed to recipes from Korea dating back more than 500 years.
“When I was younger, I didn’t have any interest in cooking,” acknowledges Chon, 37. “At school, I was like any other American kid. But when I turned the doorknob at the end of the day, I was in Korea.”
After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with a business degree, Chon worked as an analyst for PricewaterhouseCoopers and owned a membership-only warehouse club. In food, he says his greatest influence was his grandmother, or hal mu nee, who stood out as the uncontested chef and cooked for the family until her death at 94. Influenced by those memories, Chon decided to leverage his business background to bring Korean food to the masses.
In 2008, armed with some of his grandmother’s recipes—her secret meat marinades in particular—Chon opened Sammy Chon’s KTown BBQ (ktownbbq.com), a sit-down restaurant in Cherry Hill. Chon wanted most dishes to be authentic, with crunchy vegetables and some of Korea’s pickling obsessions, foods that Grandma Chon used to say improve a person’s digestive system. But it was his koagie that gave Chon his fan club.
In a koagie, mounds of charbroiled chicken, pork or bulgogi (Korean barbecued beef or pork) are tucked into a long, seeded roll brushed with Korean sesame dressing and stuffed with juicy cabbage slaw and/or kimchi. Cucumbers soused in a spicy-sweet sauce come on the side. Chon’s koagies ($6.99-$7.99) are lip-lickingly good, with drippings running down your hands. Bring on the wet naps.
“I’ve been told our flavor comes through in each bite,” he says.
In early 2011, the food website Endless Simmer put out its list of America’s top 10 new sandwiches and highlighted a Korean bulgogi from a Philadelphia food truck. “Folks wrote comments that read, ‘You’ve got it wrong. Sammy Chon’s koagie is the best Korean sandwich in the U.S.,’” Chon says. A month later, pushed by reader comments, Endless Simmer put out another top-10 list that recognized Chon’s koagie, with the Huffington Post picking up the story. “That gave us a lot of exposure,” he says.
Last December, Chon opened an express version of his Cherry Hill restaurant in Cinnaminson. “Almost immediately, the koagies became a top seller,” Chon says. In January he opened an 80-seat Sammy Chon’s KTown BBQ in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Meanwhile, he’s hoping to gather enough interest to further expand his Korean express concept. “I’m looking for investors who are enthusiastic about the sandwich and other Korean food,” says Chon, who is married and the father of two girls. “With the right people, time and effort, I think I can make it work.”