Hot Spot: M Kokko

Hot Spot: M Kokko

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Chef Mike Lee presents M Kokko's bowl of ramen with a soft-boiled egg and soy-braised pork belly.
Chef Mike Lee presents M Kokko’s bowl of ramen with a soft-boiled egg and soy-braised pork belly.

When Chef Mike Lee opened M Sushi last January, little did we know it was just the beginning of his ingredient-focused ventures. The restaurant highlights seafood and sushi, and is the realm he has most experience in as the chef at Raleigh’s Sono. “If you ask any sushi chef, their ultimate goal is to set up a dedicated sushi restaurant,” Mike says. “It takes a lot of work and [the restaurants] are very, very small.”

M Sushi is just that, in a narrow room on the lower level of the East Chapel Hill Street building across the alley from The Durham Hotel. An even more compact footprint, however, belongs to his new restaurant just around the corner: M Kokko. The two restaurants share a kitchen, making it easy for waiters and cooks to move back and forth. With only 20 seats, M Kokko is the place where Mike experiments with the next protein group in his restaurant vision: chicken.

“I knew chicken was going to be the hardest,” Mike says, “because the simplest things are the most difficult.”

As you enter the space, you’ll notice a clipboard – Mike instructs customers to write down their names and how many people are in the party, and then stick around (he’s currently planning seating outside for guests who are waiting) and a server will come find you when your table is ready. Or, if you see a long line or list, “Come in and place an order for takeout,” Mike says.

The chalkboard menu lists the five items available each day.
The chalkboard menu lists the five items available each day.

On a chalkboard will be the five entrees of the day – ramen, a rice bowl, yakisoba noodles, a fried chicken sandwich and Korean fried chicken – “KFC” – wings. “The key to good Korean fried chicken is you’ve got to have really good crispy crust that’s durable,” Mike says. It’s very labor intensive – you coat one piece at a time, fry it for five minutes, let it rest for five minutes, and then fry it again for six minutes.

But the item he’s most proud of? His chicken sandwich. “I eat it almost on a daily basis,” Mike says. “It’s very unassuming – fried chicken, garlic aioli and pickles – but the chicken is marinated in pickled daikon juice and fried with a wet batter that’s a combination of tempura batter and buttermilk. It’s simple, and so good.”

Mike's daily staple, the fried chicken sandwich topped simply with garlic aioli and pickles.
Mike’s daily staple, the fried chicken sandwich topped simply with garlic aioli and pickles.

In keeping with the casual theme, Mike recommends pairing your dish with one of the canned beers available – some local, others from Japan, like Orion. “Enjoy your beer, and have wings as a snack,” he says.

What’s next for the enterprising chef is a Japanese and Korean tableside barbecue restaurant with a focus on pork and beef. (Imagine the bar at M Sushi, but with a fire pit along it and adjustable grills. “It’s going to be one-of-a-kind,” Mike says.) To that, he plans to attach to a taco restaurant in similar fashion to the M Sushi and M Kokko setup – expect traditional tacos with an essence of Korean flavors. And finally, a vegan restaurant. “I’m scared to death about that, because I am least comfortable in [that cuisine],” Mike says. “But I want to tackle it.”

And we want to taste it. But for now, there’s fried chicken on the table.

Photography by Briana Brough


Draw

With just five menu items all centering around chicken, the kitchen staff has an intense focus to make this beloved ingredient shine. And, you won’t spend too much time laboring over what to order!

Drawback

With only 20 seats, the restaurant can get crowded quickly during peak hours. Shoot for a time before or after the lunch and dinner rush, or grab takeout and skip the line!

Price

$9-$13

Here’s A Tip

Chef Mike Lee strives for the proper balance of flavors in all his dishes, so before you add soy sauce or the spicy sauce that comes with some of the dishes, give it a taste sans condiment. “Appreciate the flavor,” he says.

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Amanda MacLaren
Amanda MacLaren is the executive editor of Durham Magazine. Born in Mesa, Ariz., she grew up in Charlotte and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in journalism. She’s lived in Durham for five years now. When she’s not at work, you can usually find her with a beer in hand at Fullsteam, Dain’s Place or Bull City Burger or getting takeout from Chubby’s.