Words & Audio: Sania Malik
Photography: Sarah Boumedda

Concordia’s downtown campus is surrounded by cafés and restaurants, but the Loyola campus is quite the opposite. Two alumnae noticed the quiet local food scene and decided to open their own Korean and Japanese inspired bistro right next to the university.

In February 2018, twin sisters Hyun Mi Jo and Hyun Sun Jo — Jo and Sun — opened their bistro Comptoir Koyajo on Sherbrooke Street.

“While we were students at Concordia, we realized there was no place to eat around here,” said Jo. “We already had a dream to open up our own business—then we realized, why not open it in a place we’re familiar with?”

The sisters grew up in Gangwon Province, South Korea, and came to Canada when they were 22. At first they stayed in Vancouver, then decided to come to Montreal to attend university. Jo studied Human Relations at Concordia, while Sun studied Sociology.

Growing up among the mountains and forests of Gangwon was different from living in Montreal, but the sisters appreciate the diversity and fast-paced atmosphere of the city. “Diversity is the main reason we like Montreal,” said Jo. “We feel like people can understand us, and they can understand where this food comes from.”

“[Why] not open it in a place we’re familiar with?” said Hyun Mi Jo (left) about opening next to Concordia University’s Loyola Campus.

More than 7,000 Montrealers identify as Korean, of about 200,000 throughout Canada. While places like Toronto have their own Koreatown, Montreal’s Chinatown includes various Korean restaurants and markets.

“A few years ago, I came to Montreal just to visit,” said Jo. “And I went to a Korean store and was shocked by how small it was. Recently, I went to visit again, and it’s expanded—and there’s another market on St. Jacques St. too, which means to me that the population of Koreans in Montreal is growing.”

Sun thinks it would be nice to have a Koreatown in Montreal one day but sees herself as a part of the larger Montreal community, rather than just the Korean community. “I can still live as one member and I don’t try to belong to everything that’s Korean-only. I’m open to every culture.”

But the sisters still pay homage to their culture and their hometown. They decided to name their bistro after koya, which is a plum found in Gangwon, and Jo, their family name. They chose to put those words together because it’s a reflection of their life, explained Sun. “When we were young, we used to eat that fruit a lot because it’s natural and delicious, and now, we want to make the same kind of food. We don’t want to use GMOs or MSG—we want to use natural ingredients. It’s reflective of us.”

Fresh, natural ingredients are at the basis of Koyajo’s menu.

Koyajo’s small but unique menu offers Korean delicacies like bibigo bowls, which come in four different styles—some with avocado and tofu, and others with smoked salmon. Other foods on the menu are soups, noodles, and most notably, dumplings.

Their dumplings come in two varieties: the classic dumpling and the kimchi vege dumpling. The classic includes pork, green onion, chives, and japchae noodles, while the kimchi vege includes kimchi (fermented and seasoned vegetables), tofu and bean sprouts.

LISTEN: Sun and Jo discuss their experience with opening their bistro.

Dumplings were a significant part of Sun and Jo’s childhoods in South Korea. “Our mom would make dumplings all the time,” said Jo. “We chose this menu because it’s simple yet important. In Korea, whenever it’s Thanksgiving or New Year’s, we always get together and make dumplings.”

Using a family recipe from their great-grandmother’s time, the sisters hoped to create dumplings that were different from the rest. “We know what dumplings should taste like,” said Sun. “We wanted to show people what a real dumpling is. We’ve tried many places here, and it was a big disappointment. It was just thick dough with little to no meat inside; we wanted to do something different and better.”

Koyajo’s menu is ever-changing, influenced both by the season’s crops and Sun’s never-ending creativity in the kitchen.

They change the menu every week by adding ingredients to existing dishes or creating brand new ones from scratch. Jo credits Sun as the one who loves to cook every day, while she enjoys creating new menus and playing with food. “Maybe in the summer, the menu will be a little different, since we might add salads that include seasonal fruits and vegetables,” she said. “But so far we want to focus on a small menu that we’re best at. We wanted to create food we would eat every day—we want to feed our customers like our family.”

Overall, their experience with the bistro has been almost dream-like. “We’re so lucky and so grateful,” said Sun. When they first opened Koyajo, the sisters’ greatest challenge was their own fear. Without any marketing or promotion, however, they watched as their daily customers grew and they gained new clients every week.

“I saw people coming back constantly, and it’s kind of impressive, because we had zero marketing,” said Jo.

Communication problems were also a challenge at first, but both sisters believe passion should be greater than fear and obstacles—especially for immigrants who want to open their own business but are afraid. “If you’re really interested in something and it’s something you want to do, then you should do it before you die,” Jo said with a smile. “It’s always better to try than not try and regret it. And, when you put your effort in food, people will know.”