Born in Seoul, South Korea, Jeannie Choi grew up in a family of restaurateurs. Her parents are second-generation restaurant owners who worked in various catering capacities for large Korean corporations. As a young girl, Choi would sometimes don her own apron to help them out in the kitchen.
In college, Choi stepped away from food to study Korean literature, but when her family fell on hard times, she went back to work in the kitchen to help make ends meet. Choi soon found herself working for a premiere Korean hotel chain — a career that would lead to extensive travel throughout Southeast Asia as part of a corporate team opening up new properties in the region.
On her days off, Choi would travel to night markets sampling the local food, learning new cooking techniques and savoring flavors along the way. “My sense of adventure is satisfied through trying new things,” Jeannie explains, “and that usually means trying new foods! Because I love food and I love tasting everything.” In 2005, Choi moved to Spokane, leaving behind her family in Korea and giving up the career and everything she had worked for up to that point. Struggling with a language barrier, Choi sought the help of the local Korean community to find her first series of odd jobs. She saved up enough money to buy herself a car, so she didn’t have to take the bus to work and resolved to work towards the dream of opening up her own restaurant someday.
“My family and culture are very important to me, and I am also very passionate about people. During my world travels, I met so many friends from all different cultures. Seeing the many things the Pacific Northwest has to offer — like fresh seafoods, meats and produce — I wanted to introduce new flavors to the people here,” Choi explains, adding that “treating people like they are family and feeding them my cooking is what brings me so much joy.”
In 2018, along with her close friend and director of business development, Kelly Bishop, Choi opened D’bali Asian Bistro in a little strip mall along the main thoroughfare of Airway Heights. There, she welcomed patrons with her signature warm hospitality, earning her the nickname, “Mama Jeannie,” from customers who have since become friends.
Meals at D’bali are as varied as the many regions of Southeast Asia that Choi frequented in her travels. She always starts out her service with a set of complimentary “banchan” bowls — traditional Korean side dishes made with seasonal ingredients that people can enjoy before their meal. Her curries are prepared in small batches, simmered for several hours to bring an authentic home-made feel to the dish.
Rather than focusing on one specific country or region, the food at D’bali is a curation of Choi’s favorites from her travels around Southeast Asia. Hokkien mee, a savory dish with two types of noodles, pork and shrimp, is a crowd favorite originating from the Fujian province of China, but can also be found in Malaysian, Singaporean and Thai cuisines. A few other staples on the menu are Mama Jeannie’s famous boat noodle soup, kuaitiao ruea, gleaned from her travels in Thailand, and her version of nasi goreng, a potato-and-rice dish that she was taught to make by a dear friend in Indonesia.
Bishop and Choi are committed to making sure that each and every person that enters the door feels like they just walked into a relative’s home for a family meal. “So many of our customers are repeat customers,” says Bishop. “Mama Jeannie’s personality is part of the experience at D’bali. By being present in every step of the dining experience, she instills a level of trust and confidence from people, and they feel like they are taken care of like family. You get Mama Jeannie herself answering the phone, filling in the order, and even running out to your car.”
Choi further extends her heart for others by opening up her restaurant, free of charge, to up-and-coming chefs, hosting a series of pop-up dinners where they would be able to showcase their talents without the stress of running a brick-and-mortar space. “Once Covid is over, and we are allowed to fully open again, it’s definitely something we hope to continue doing,” Bishop says.
Choi travels great distances to procure ingredients for the unique dishes that she cooks. On her Sundays off, she usually makes the early morning trek to the western side of the state to buy ingredients that cannot be found in Spokane. This dedication to creating quality dishes with the best ingredients possible are another aspect of D’bali’s commitment to outstanding customer experience.
Today, Mama Jeannie is back to welcoming families into her dining room with her big smile and the smell of delicious Asian flavors emanating from the kitchen. “I am so happy to see people eating in the restaurant again. I want them to feel like family and to feed them until they’re full.”
story and photos by ari nordhagen