It is widely understood that a not-so-slight portion of David Chang’s early success came from his unapologetic propensity for combining Korean cuisine with whatever he saw fit. Korean cooking — with its plentiful kimchis, an endless array of sweet, spicy and fried meats and a range of robust jangs, or sauces and pastes — is hearty in its own right. Even with its general knack for noise and big, bright flavors, the food still manages to lend itself towards collaboration and blending despite a clear capacity to command center stage. Enter Mukja, a food truck opened in September 2019 by mother and daughter team Julia Rivera and Kayla Makowski, which serves a variety of hybridized snacks and more classic fare from Seoul and beyond.
Rivera left her career in accounting to start the truck after a growing menu — inspired by several years of frequent travel — began to take shape. With no formal kitchen background, the food largely grew out of conversations shared between Rivera and Makowski over dishes they enjoyed. Both feeling that items could be improved with slight tweaks in both ingredients and technique, the duo began creating plates that borrowed indiscriminately from across what turned out to be quite permeable cultural lines. There was only one unifying principle, it had to be delicious. “We’d be eating something like poutine and we’d think about how we could combine it with traditional Korean food,” said Rivera.
Initially inspired by a visit taken by Rivera and her husband Victor to Komex — a joint peddling bulgogi-filled burritos, tacos and enchiladas — during a getaway in Las Vegas, the chef’s early blueprints envisioned something more along the lines of Korean-Mexican fare. “He and I were a fusion itself,” she smiled. As recipe development continued, designations became less and less rigid.
Rivera met Penelope Wong of Yuan Wonton while both groups were getting their initial truck inspection. “She was after me. They actually had our menus confused,” laughed Rivera. Only a few short weeks later the two serendipitously reunited, discovering they shared the same commissary kitchen. “I was at the commissary like I know you,” grinned Rivera. Most recently the two collaborated on a pop-up at Long Table Brewhouse where, on August 11, Mukja provided hot plates while Wong sold frozen dumpling kits. Rivera cites Wong as being instrumental in helping her grow Mukja from an appetizing dream into a viable reality. “Our first day we had four customers and we were like oh my god we made it,” she said. A lot has changed since then.
With just shy of six months under their belt, Rivera and Makowski decided to close the truck at the beginning of quarantine, keeping shut through July. “People were starting to know who we were prior to March,” said Rivera. Fortunately, she says the hiatus didn’t throw a dramatic wrench into things. Since reopening, the truck has been hosting two to four successful services a week at locations including Improper City, Cerebral Brewing, Copper Kettle and the Denver Art Walk.
The menu is short and sweet, with classic staples being joined by rotating specials. The wonton nachos see crispy wonton skins generously layered with lettuce and scallion salad, spicy aioli, queso fresco, sesame seeds and a choice of protein — including ribeye beef bulgogi, chicken bulgogi, spicy chicken and fried tofu. The Korean street cheese dog takes deep-fried mozzarella, rolls it in sugar and tops it with ketchup and honey mustard for an exercise in international state-fair decadence. For anyone seeking more traditional fare, 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 extend as much to the classics as does her knack for coalescence. It might also bear mentioning that there are kimchi fries.
Taken together, the commissary-mates’ dramatically different backgrounds speak to one of food’s great joys, that the exquisite can be arrived at via many paths. Wong has become one of the more formidable forces in Denver dining with years of sweat equity backing up her popularity. Rivera’s track was less clear. On the strength of creativity alone she and Makowski have built a truck truly worth seeking out. It all boils down to Mukja’s English translation — “Let’s Eat!”
All photography by Adrienne Thomas.