Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Restaurant makes mark on Takoma Park

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
In the right kitchen: Mark Choe’s Takoma Park restaurant is a haven for vegetarians as well as those who enjoy American and Asian fare.
Mark’s Kitchen

7006 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park


Style of cuisine: American, Asian, vegetarian

Hours: Mon.-Fri.: 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat. 8 a.m.-9 p.m.;Sun. 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

Entrée prices:$6.25-$9.95

All major credit cards

When Mark Choe opened Mark’s Kitchen, his downtown Takoma Park restaurant, in 1989, he had no intention of creating a vegetarian haven. Within the first two months, though, he began to see a trend among customers who would spot something on the menu, then ask for a meatless version. An order of vegetable curry with beef, without the beef? Choe was happy to oblige.

The restaurateur produced a new menu in early 1990; it featured specific vegetarian dishes in addition to the American and Asian fare. And during the past 18 years, he has added even more vegetarian items. During that time, Choe estimates that the percentage of vegetarian diners as part of his overall business has grown from 10 or 20 percent to half. With an extensive selection of non-vegetarian food, parties that include both meat lovers and vegans can dine together.

Choe got a taste of the restaurant business when he worked in a cafeteria owned by his relatives.

‘‘They had a very successful business,” Choe says, so he watched and learned.

A quick study, he decided to open his own establishment. He proceeded to hire a culinary school-educated chef, and again Choe watched, and he picked up cooking techniques.

‘‘I’m a very picky eater,” he admits. ‘‘I can’t eat a lot of things, so I have to cook very carefully.”

When he shared his culinary creations with others, he was encouraged by their enjoyment of the food he made.

‘‘I decided to do this cooking thing,” Choe says.

Inspiration for new dishes comes from many sources. He pours through books and magazines, testing the recipes he finds on his customers and staff.

While the spinach tofu pancake with brown or steamed rice is the current favorite among customers, Choe notes that daily specials are also very popular. He says the sautéed vegetables over rice special, served Mondays and Tuesdays, draws people from D.C., Virginia and Prince George’s County, as well as towns across Montgomery County.

‘‘The whole menu was my idea,” Choe says, adding that he developed all its dishes through a trial and error method. The menu is updated every three to five years.

When the restaurant was new, he regularly sampled the offerings of restaurants throughout the metro area, sometimes visiting two or more a day for breakfast and dinner.

‘‘I’d order two, three, four, sometimes five dishes each time to see which ones I could do,” Choe says. He also looked at the food’s presentation.

‘‘What looked good and tasted good, I kept,” Choe says.

Every style of restaurant was fair game. Choe went to small, chef-owned restaurants, diners and even larger chain restaurants. He was drawn to unusual styles, such as Asian and American fusion.

‘‘Now I don’t have as much time for that because I have a family,” Choe says. He is married and has a 6-year-old son.

Choe considers himself ‘‘very lucky” to have found loyal employees, some of whom have been on staff for more than a dozen years. One chef has been with the restaurant since it opened 18 years ago.

Originally from Korea, Choe, 50, moved to the United States in his late twenties to be closer to relatives and to take advantage of the greater opportunities this country offered. He now lives in Chevy Chase.

‘‘I love Takoma Park,” Choe says. ‘‘They have supported me all these years.”

If the crowds in his small restaurant are any indication, Takoma Park loves him right back.