Korean vegan comfort food - these tacos are trending
By GEORGE GEORGIOU
I’ve had the same order at UT47 for a while now. Maybe it’s because I live right around the corner that the cafe’s feeling of home has me instantly ordering my comfort food, but boy does the #18 with extra avocado do the mid-afternoon trick.
The owner of the cafe is a forever cheery and chatty Korean woman named Mi-Young Yu, a plant lover and trained painter with a fine arts degree who considers herself more a “food developer” than a chef. She’s also spent a few years redesigning houses, a talent that can be seen in the woodwork and carved-out wall details in the cafe that she created.
“I tell people that you can do anything you want,” she says, looking at me with the same intention and care that a parent looks at their child, “You just need to actually make the decision to do it and it will happen.”
"Vegan food is just food ... I want to get people out of their box. Anyone can be a part time vegan.”
And that’s exactly what happened for her. After working in catering and co-owning a series of restaurants and cafes with other chefs in Jacksonville, she moved to New York and opened her own spot a few years later. UT47 is about to celebrate its third birthday.
The origin of the name? It’s Mi-Young’s childhood nickname. Thanks to an ET book bag gifted to her by an aunt in the fifth grade, her classmates used to tease her love of the alien with a moniker that, in their eyes, was perfect for the bride of a Hollywood extraterrestrial: Yu-T. And, with the location on W47th St, UT47 was born.
Fronted by Mi-Young and her Bushwick-born second-in-command, Jasmine, the pair can almost always be found behind the counter working any and all roles. Because of the pandemic’s citywide effect on business, it’s now mainly just the two of them running around and making the food and coffees necessary to keep the business afloat. And things seem to be picking up. Our conversation is interrupted by what seems to be the fifth person of the hour ordering the Hell’s Kitchen-trending Korean fusion tacos.
Since opening up UT47, Mi-Young has become increasingly interested in vegan and gluten free cooking. When a guest disclosed how difficult it was to find something in the neighborhood that catered to her dietary restrictions, Mi-Young had found her new calling.
“I want to make food everyone can eat,” she says, as she walks over with what I'm hoping is her new vegan, gluten-free, nut-free cheeseburger. With Korean sweet potato for texture and sticky rice powder to hold it together, it’s freaking delicious. But I think I’ll stick to my beloved #18: a bagel with arugula, avocado, and her homemade vegan cashew cream cheese. The secret ingredient, she enthusiastically and not so secretly tells me, is orange to brighten it up. Not lemon though; that's too acidic.
Making great vegan food is not new; nor is it something particular to UT47. There are tons of lovely vegan restaurants throughout the city, some of the best in Hells Kitchen. Gone are the days where we should have to settle for a basic salad with two cherry tomatoes or a boring slab of avocado toast when we go out to eat and, thankfully, we’re beginning to see encouraging changes in menus.
Mi-Young agrees. She believes chefs need to follow change, but believes you don’t have to be vegan to eat vegan. “Vegan food is just food," she says, "it’s not different. I want to get people out of their box. Anyone can be a part time vegan.”
As for what she thinks about being in Hell’s Kitchen, she gives a big smile and tells me how much she loves her regulars. “There’s so many good looking gay guys.” I start to laugh and she decides to list the qualities of the locals, while simultaneously giving me Covergirl eyes and sashaying her shoulders from side to side to perfectly hit each mark. “Patience, Manners, Beauty.” It’s a performance worthy of Broadway. She fits in well.