BUSAN, South Korea – Since Sharky’s opening in May 2010, the comfy bar and grill on Haeundae Beach (and most recently on Gwangan Beach) has enjoyed a steady stream of loyal customers. A lot of proprietors would look at this kind of success and think, “Leave it be. Why fix something that’s not broken?” But when owner Rick Schneider met chef Ahmad "Oscar" Mansour, he saw an opportunity to take Sharky’s to the next level. And when Lee Mi-bong, a.k.a. "Miya", a previous employee, returned from a year in Australia seeking work, the trifecta was complete.
Miya had just returned from spending a year in Sydney, working as a bartender, barista and waitress, and she became enthralled by the variety of cuisines on offer, the fanciful coffee culture and the level of ingenuity that went into mixing cocktails at the local bars. But the thing that stood out to her most was the lack of a yo-gi-oh button on restaurant tables as is quite typical in Korea. She was shocked when a waiter approached her table on his own accord and actually asked her how her day was going.
Miya returned to Busan wanting to introduce her hometown to what she learned about both mixology and Western-style service. You can see it in her approach to managing the staff at Sharky’s and in her killer Bloody Marys and chocolate martinis.
Though Ahmad "Oscar" Mansour didn’t attend culinary school until 2007, his enthusiasm for the art of cooking dates back to his youth. Raised in Kuwait in a family of 12, Oscar attributes his love of food to his mom, of whom he says, “there is no competition” in the kitchen. His family relocated to Los Angeles when Oscar was 14, where he began the slow, steady journey to his true calling.
Though they all became truck drivers by trade, Oscar and his brothers opened a middle-eastern restaurant in San Diego, which was voted the best of its kind three years in a row by a local TV station. Preparing meals at the local Islamic center during Ramadan, the Mansour brothers' reputation for good food would sometimes draw as many as 1,500 people. Despite his passion for cooking, Oscar still didn’t consider it a viable career path.
Several years later Oscar met his wife, a Russian-born Korean. Soon after that, on a visit to his in-laws, he was asked to prepare a meal for the family, and as everyone licked their plates clean, Oscar’s mother-in-law pulled him aside and made a suggestion. She was so sure that cooking professionally was what he was meant to do that she offered to foot the bill for culinary school.
After graduation he did some catering and worked in several restaurants in southern California. Eventually, he and his wife decided to make a move to Korea, where she began working as a teacher at Busan Foreign School. With nothing but time on his hands, Oscar began working as a volunteer chef at the school, simply for the joy of being able to expose students to an international menu. When he met Rick, their fast friendship led to a job offer, which led to the rumors I began to hear about “that new chef over at Sharky’s.”
When Oscar served me my first course, a Mexican five-layer dip, it wasn’t the scrumptious-looking dish topped with a homemade chipotle sauce that got me excited – it was the look in Oscar’s eyes. Like a proud papa, he watched with raised eyebrows as I took the first bite. He gave me a knowing nod as the chips, carrying a perfect blend of homemade refried beans, spicy beef, cheddar, sour cream and salsa quickly began to disappear. He then retreated into the kitchen to prepare dish number two: chicken fajita tacos.
I was fairly certain I had reached my limit by the time I finished the last bite of tender chicken (his trick is marinating it in yogurt) until Oscar returned from the kitchen carrying a chicken Philly sandwich. If there’s one thing I absolutely cannot refuse, it’s blue cheese dressing – especially when, like Oscar’s, it is homemade. As I sopped up the last of the dressing with the perfectly toasted baguette, I wished I had an extra stomach to accommodate Oscar’s offer of shawarma.
I’ve always been a fan of Sharky’s, but I’m also kind of a KSU rat, so my visits there have been sporadic. But with their 50% off all menu items on Mondays, “Chef’s Choice” specials on Tuesdays, 5,000 won Mexican Cantina on Wednesdays, Miya’s weekend drink specials and 10,000 won chicken fajitas on Sundays, I’m pretty sure I’ll be spending a little more time in Haeundae.
For this three-day weekend:
Sharky's Haeundae will be open from 5 p.m. Saturday – Monday.
Sharky's Gwangan will be open from 2 p.m. Saturday – Monday.