With M Pocha, Durham chef Michael Lee offers his riff on Korean street food

So far, Durham chef Michael Lee has thrived in the shadows, all three of his acclaimed restaurants found down a brick alley or cobblestone path, likely never by accident.

With his fourth restaurant, M Pocha, Lee takes center stage in downtown Durham, moving into the former Cupcake Bar space in Five Points, one of the city’s most prominent pieces of restaurant real estate.

M Pocha is a play on pojangmacha, Lee said, a Korean street food bar that’s typically built as a tent. Lee compares it to a Japanese izakaya, which serves a menu of dishes meant for a night of drinking.

“Basically the food and dishes I like to eat while having a few drinks,” Lee said in an interview with The News & Observer. “The menu will be a combination of dishes from all over the world, but Korean will be the main influence for the most part.”

Expect kimchi stew and Korean dumplings, possibly beef tongue and fried rice with Szechuan spices and likely a bowl of noodles, among other shareable plates. M Pocha will be Lee’s first restaurant with a full bar and cocktail program, plus Korean spirits soju and makgeolli.

M Pochu is now in its soft opening phase and is expected to be fully open next week.

Lee, who is Korean, started cooking in the kitchens of Japanese restaurants and that experience has guided the growth of his burgeoning restaurant empire. The chef calls sushi his first love and opened M Sushi as his first restaurant, later adding ramen and fried chicken spot M Kokko and M Tempura last year, modeled after tempura bars of delicately fried bites he visited in Tokyo.

Korean food is for his days off, Lee said, but will likely play a larger role in M Pocha.

“I’m very passionate about Korean food,” he said. “It’s a lot of what I cook at home.”

Lee first made a name for himself at downtown Raleigh’s Sono, a restaurant among the area’s best for a pan-Asian menu. He left a few years ago to start his own restaurant group, and he has seemed determined to dismantle and recreate the pan-Asian concept piece by piece and restaurant by restaurant, striving for specificity and regionality in each concept.

“We got a little too big, and the menu went a little bit everywhere,” Lee said, referring to Sono. “We tried to concentrate it and narrow it down, but that’s hard to do when it’s in place already. I knew I had to start from scratch. I wanted to excel at fewer things, and that’s the reason behind these specific smaller restaurants.”

M Pocha, at 101 E. Chapel Hill St., may be the smallest yet, a one-room restaurant with an open kitchen. A long wooden communal table sits in the center of the room, and chairs line the windows, looking out on one of downtown’s busiest roads. Inside, the room is dark gray with a pop of the restaurant’s name in bright pink neon. Gleaming tea kettles line the walls behind the bar, and everything looks ready for a party.

“It’s going to be more lively, more upbeat and more Korean music,” Lee said. “It’ll be darker inside with old school Korean cookware mounted on the wall. And a little more casual, kind of like a party.”

Lee’s trend of off-the-beaten path restaurants hasn’t kept anyone from finding them. M Kokko is famous for its waits as much as its chicken sandwiches, with a disclaimer that it’s tough to say how long diners will wait for a table, but no one really seeming to mind.

Now, in the center of Durham’s restaurant district, one of the city’s most prolific restaurateurs is stepping into the spotlight.

“We like the feel of being tucked away and hidden, but we’re not trying to be hidden on purpose,” Lee said. “I think that spot is awesome, it’s right in the middle of everything.”

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.