At Mukja Food Truck, Mother-Daughter Duo Make Korean Fusion Snacks

mukjaIt is commonly understood that a not-so-slight portion of the early success of David Chang came from his unfortunate tendency to mix Korean cuisine with whatever he saw fit. Korean cuisine is hearty in its own right with its ample kimchis, an endless selection of sweet, spicy and fried meats and a variety of robust jangs, or sauces and pastes. Even with its general knowledge of noise and large , bright flavors, despite a strong ability to command center stage, the food still manages to lend itself to collaboration and blending. Enter Mukja, a food truck launched by Julia Rivera and Kayla Makowski's mother and daughter team in September 2019, serving a range of hybridized snacks and more classic fare from Seoul and beyond.

Rivera left her accounting profession to start the truck after an increasing menu started to take shape, motivated by several years of regular travel. The food evolved largely out of conversations shared between Rivera and Makowski over dishes they enjoyed with no formal kitchen context. The duo began to produce plates that borrowed indiscriminately from across what proved to be very permeable cultural lines, both believing that pieces could be enhanced with subtle tweaks in both ingredients and technique. There was only one unifying concept, and it must have been delicious. "Rivera said," We would eat something like poutine and we would think about how we should mix it with traditional Korean cuisine.

Initially influenced by a visit to Komex by Rivera and her husband Victor, a joint peddling bulgogi-filled burritos, tacos and enchiladas, the early blueprints of the chef envisaged something more along the lines of Korean-Mexican fare during a getaway in Las Vegas. "He and I were a melting pot," she chuckled. Designations became less and less static as recipe production progressed.

Rivera encountered Yuan Wonton's Penelope Wong when both groups received their initial inspection of the vehicle. "She happened to be seeking me. They had our menus really confused, "Rivera chuckled. The two serendipitously reunited just a few weeks later, finding that they shared the same commissioner's kitchen. "I have been at the commissary, as I know you," Rivera grinned. Most recently, the two collaborated on a pop-up at Long Table Brewhouse, where Mukja served hot plates on August 11, while Wong sold frozen dumpling kits. Wong is cited by Rivera as being instrumental in helping her develop Mukja into a viable reality from an appetizing dream. "We had four clients on our first day and we were like oh my god we did it," she said. Since then much has changed.

Rivera and Makowski agreed to close the truck at the beginning of the quarantine with just short of six months under their belt, keeping it shut until July. "People have started recognizing who we were before March," Rivera said. Luckily, she says the hiatus weren't tossing a drastic wrench into stuff. Since reopening, at locations like Inappropriate Region, Cerebral Brewing, Copper Kettle and the Denver Art Walk, the truck has hosted two to four good services a week.

The menu is short and sweet, with rotating specials joining the classic staples. The wonton nachos are generously layered with lettuce and scallion salad, spicy aioli, cheese fresco, sesame seeds and a variety of protein, including ribeye beef bulgogi, chicken bulgogi, spicy chicken and fried tofu, crispy wonton skins. The Korean street cheese dog takes deep-fried mozzarella, rolls it into sugar and tops it up with ketchup and honey mustard for an exercise in state-fair decadence international. The bibimbap, with rice or sweet potato noodles, cucumber salad, carrots, shitake mushrooms, house-made kimchi slaw, fried egg, sesame oil and sesame seeds, shows that Rivera's chops apply as much to the classics as her knack for coalescence to those searching for more conventional cuisine. It could also bear mention of kimchi fries.

Taken together, the radically different histories of the commissary-mates speak to one of the great joys of cooking, that the sublime can be achieved in many ways. Wong, with years of sweat equity supporting her popularity, has become one of the most formidable forces in Denver dining. The track with Rivera was less obvious. She and Makowski have created a truck genuinely worth searching out on the strength of imagination alone. "All comes down to the English translation of Mukja-"Let's Eat!
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