Three years after opening a stand inside the North Philly H Mart, Mari Mari is rolling into Center City. For proprietor Youngnam Kwon, the dine-in restaurant on 13th and Chestnut is the fulfillment of a long-held dream.
His goal is to offer a menu as creative as it is affordable. “It should be easy, it should be cheap, and it should be simple,” the 38-year-old entrepreneur told Billy Penn.
The result is sushi with a caveat.
Other than the salmon, all the maki roll fillings are cooked, from the bulgogi beef and chicken katsu to fried calamari and sweet potato — one of four vegan options. The crab meat is imitation and the tuna from a can, not unusual in Korean cuisine, Kwon said.
All this is effective in keeping costs down and staff training efficiently minimal. Crucially, per Kwon, it’s a selection that can be served consistently without the need for a sushi chef.
“They’re arrogant,” he said. “And they’re expensive.”
Kwon speaks from experience as a former “arrogant” sushi chef himself, he said — one who was slowly humbled by years of false starts and frustrations.
Following the fusion sushi wave
The journey began when Kwon’s uncle returned to South Korea from California in the early 2000’s, bringing along a knowledge of “American-style” sushi — with its various crunchy toppings and sweet sauces to soften the sharpness of raw fish for unaccustomed palates.
The result was Sushi California, a trendy chain that at its peak held 55 locations across South Korea, a mini empire that Kwon’s father eventually joined as well.
Reluctantly at first, Kwon accepted his father’s job offer. He started off washing dishes and slowly worked his way up, then left the chain to hone his skills at a series of fancier restaurants in Seoul’s Gangnam District, moving up at each one. He worked as a fish scaler, rolled sushi, handled whole fish for preparation, and interacted with customers. At his sixth restaurant, he earned the title of chef.
“It was kind of hard, but at the same time I learned a lot, becoming a real chef,” Kwon said. “I felt like I could do everything.”
In 2011, between jobs, Kwon traveled to New York City, where his uncle’s wife lived with Kwon’s nephews. Despite plans to vacation, his aunt took him to visit a friend who owned a Koreatown restaurant and demanded Kwon be put to work.
“She was kind of a tiger mom,” Kwon said. “She just forced me to do it.”
Kwon wasn’t a fan of the job, or of New York. “It wasn’t the dream city I thought,” he said. But back in Korea, he found himself nostalgic for his time there. When his uncle announced he’d be joining his wife in NYC to run a restaurant, Kwon accepted his offer to help out.
The first year at Asagao Sushi was slow, and Kwon soon grew frustrated — not just by the suburban pace of the restaurant’s Croton-on-Hudson location, or by the language barrier, but also because he was back to washing dishes. His uncle was the chef.
So he struck out on his own. A move to Brooklyn brought temporary kitchen jobs, but work as a chef was hard to come by. There was a short-lived partnership with an older Korean server he met along the way — an izakaya pop-up he said lasted three months and left him $7k in debt.
“I was so confused,” Kwon said. At the time, all he could think was “What am I?” Disheartened, he moved back in with his aunt and uncle, and resumed kitchen duties at Asagao.
Two years later, Kwon had gotten his green card and brought his parents to New York. He’d been promoted at Asagao, where business had picked up. But he realized he no longer wanted to be a chef, watching how hard his aging uncle and now father continued to work. He struck out on his own again, this time with a different strategy: finding jobs at fast casual Asian eateries, and studying the American model where “everything was so systemized.”
Kwon developed five Korean fusion concepts that could be adapted into the business model he aimed to emulate, from a hot dog joint to the fusion sushi menu that would become Mari Mari (the word means “roll,” as a verb, in Korean.)
He sent out applications for ghost kitchens and storefronts as the pandemic hit. The sole response came from H Mart in Philadelphia. After a discussion with his family and a visit to Philly, he made the decision to go for it.
Creative combos that prize consistency
In September 2020, Mari Mari opened its first location inside the Asian supermarket at 6201 Front St. in Olney. It was staffed by Kwon and his parents.
Three years later, there’s a full complement of employees there and at the new 22-seat dine-in spot in Center City — but still no sushi chef. The menu Kwon has come up with balances the traditional and fusion flavors he grew up with.
The 15 kinds of sushi rolls, available individually or in combos (18 pieces for $11.75) come with a range of sauces — “people in America like dipping” — and sides of crispy rice.
Substantially sized ramen bowls run around $13, with offerings split between traditional recipes, Korean flavors, and Kwon’s own concoctions, like the spicy pork udon and kimchi ramens, which are more Korean in their flavors, as all as the “American”-style bacon cream udon, which he likens to a creamy pasta.
There are also inari. A Japanese treat traditionally consumed cold, these palm-sized pockets of fried tofu filled with rice are at Mari Mari served hot, with a range of available toppings like kimchi, unagi, spicy crab, and cheese bulgogi. They range from $3-$4 apiece.
There are pouch-packed house-made beverages too: strawberry lemonade, pineapple punch, and yuzu-ade, made with a Japanese citrus lemon.
It all adds up, Kwon said, to a menu that can be replicated as easy as “step one, step two, step three,” by prospective franchisees he’s currently working on attracting.
For now, the confusion of his earlier days bouncing between kitchens is gone. “This was always my dream,” Kwon said. “To be an entrepreneur.”
105 S. 13th St. | 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily | marimariphilly.com