Bok Choy Boy owner Set Sison developed a passion for food after eating his way around Chicago, where he attended culinary school before returning to the Lowcountry to dish out hand-pulled noodles, spicy Korean chicken wings and more at his Asian fusion pop-ups. And after more than two years on the go, the Filipino-born chef hopes to soon debut a more permanent destination for fans of his cuisine.
“It’s funny because I was trained in French in culinary school. I cook American food and Italian food as well. I had no interest in Asian cuisine,” said Sison, who had a change of heart after working as an apprentice at multiple Asian-inspired Chicago restaurants. “I just fell in love with the flavors.”
Charlestonians have fallen in love with Sison’s riffs on traditional Korean, Filipino and Thai favorites since his first Bok Choy Boy pop-up at Summerville’s Wide Awake Brewing Company in 2019. The chef prides himself on spice and texture, which he puts on display with his house-made noodles.
“We stick to our flavors — we like the balance of the spicy, salty, sweet, sour, and we play around with textures as well. Especially our thick noodles — we make it in house — it’s made with rice flour and potato starch,” said Sison, who spent time in the Cypress and Rappahannock Oyster Bar kitchens before starting Bok Choy Boy. “Basically, roll it and sear it in a really hot wok, and you get that crunchy outside texture with the soft chewy middle. We finish it with our agave sauce based off a sweet Korean sauce with beef, and we garnish it with papaya salad.”
Bok Choy Boy’s Dan Dan noodles have also been a hit at recent pop-ups, Sison said.
“Our Dan Dan noodles are our staple. It’s one of our most popular items right now,” he said. “It’s spicy and has that peanut finish to it. Again, texture is there, and it comes with spicy turkey.”
Growing up in Charleston after his family relocated from the Philippines, Sison has fond memories of his mom cooking classic Southeast Asian meals, but he only serves a couple Filipino staples at pop-ups.
“My mom — I think now she makes the best pancit, which I love so much and her adobo’s great too,” Sison said. “I love cooking it myself, but I can’t go change it. It’s that staple Filipino food.”
Bok Choy Boy serves only two Filipino dishes, and Sison puts his twist on both. His Filipino spaghetti — a combination of pasta, sausage, hot dogs and a sweet, tomato-based sauce — gets an extra kick of spice from Calabrian chiles, and the chef’s lumpia (a Filipino egg roll) has notes of earthiness with the addition of lemongrass.
Sison admitted that the pop-up life has been a challenge at times, especially post-COVID-19, when increased competition has meant less space to actually pop up. Bok Choy Boy is already scheduling events for August due to limited availability, Sison said.
“It’s a challenge because you never know what you’re going into,” he said. “You set up a kitchen pretty much every time. You carry your tables, you carry your coolers and you just try to keep everything to temp, especially during summertime.”
Because of this lack of predictable job security, the chef hopes to soon swap his makeshift kitchen for a permanent space.
“Moving forward when we’re planning for the restaurant, we’re going to change the name,” said Sison, calling the pop-up’s namesake ingredient one of his favorites to cook with. “We are saving up, so hopefully sometime soon we’ll find a brick-and-mortar.”
Once he finds the space, Sison will bring with him the experience he gained from a multi-night kitchen takeover earlier this year at Spanglish, when he served three types of ramen, selling out each night of service.
“They were our first restaurant takeover. [Former Spanglish owners] Tomas and Lynda gave us a chance, and we’re so grateful for that,” Sison said. “Tomas and Lynda pretty much showed us how to run an actual restaurant and how to be successful.”
“We consider Set ‘family,’ and he is one of the kindest, sweetest souls we’ve ever encountered,” Lynda Prado said. “He always displayed the utmost professionalism in the kitchen when he worked as a line cook for us and during his Bok Choy Boy pop-ups at Spanglish. He was always very humble and appreciative and bonded immediately with chef Tomas.”
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