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I-Ho Pomeroy is living his American dream as the owner and chef of I-Ho’s Korean Grill and serves the city of Bozeman as a commissioner. Pomeroy’s journey began on March 30, 1988, when she set foot on American soil in San Diego.
In the late 1980s, she worked as a “troubleshooter” for the US Navy in South Korea, helping coordinate experts such as plumbers and carpenters for needed repairs. One fall evening, while attending a party for Navy officers, she meets Second Lieutenant Derrick Pomeroy.
Their meeting was brief as he left two days later and “He didn’t write me a letter. I tried to forget it.” In March he sent a letter. In it, he asked, “If I show up in Korea, would you like to meet me?” That meeting led to a follow-up letter asking for her hand in marriage. When he proposed, “I said yes.” We didn’t know each other. I was very naive.”
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From San Diego, the Pomeroys landed briefly in Billings, later moving to Missoula for Derrick’s law school and finally to work in Bozeman. Yi-Ho first worked in a Chinese restaurant and “loved it,” but she wanted to start her own business. In 1997, her husband built her a food cart, from which she began serving South Korean food on Saturdays at the Bozeman Farmers Market. “The food cart had four sinks, hot and cold water, a heat exchanger, a refrigerator and a grill. It was very compact,” she said.
Satisfied customers convinced her to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. When Strombolis Pizzeria closed for business near the Montana State University campus, Pomeroy took over the space and opened I-Ho’s Korean Grill on Labor Day 1999.
She met some amazing Korean chefs in Bozeman and learned from them. She perfected her own recipes influenced by her childhood growing up in Jinhae, the city known for South Korea’s cherry blossom festival and home to US and Korean naval bases.
Her father provides uniforms and sporting goods to the Korean Naval Academy.
“The staff lived with my family. The main work of my mother and her helpers was to cook breakfast, lunch, dinner and do laundry. There was always lots and lots of food in my house,” she said. In addition to making the food from scratch, she also made condiments like chili bean paste, soy sauce, and kimchi.
Pomeroy took management classes when she started her business and learned from a professor.
“So many companies come to America in one day. So many businesses in America go down in one day. One reason is that there is not enough cash flow. You need cash flow for three years,” Pomeroy said, which can absorb the many costs of running a restaurant.
She admitted: “Working in a restaurant is hard, but it’s worth it. Working in a restaurant is hard money. However, the recent popularity of Korean films such as Parasite has boosted business.
Pomeroy moved to the Gallatin Valley Mall in 2015, finally landing at its current location at 323 W. Main Street next door to the Gallatin Historical Museum and behind her husband’s law office.
On the day of my visit, my friend Amy Chuck treated me to lunch and we ordered Yaki Madu (six chicken dumplings served with cucumber salad), Dduk-Bok-Gi (rice cakes, ramen noodles and vegetables in a special sauce) and “Dak-Gal-Bi” (chicken, potatoes, rice cakes and vegetables in a hot ceramic bowl, served with a side of rice).
Chuck, who has dined at the restaurant many times over the years, said, “My favorite dishes are the seafood pancake and the Man-Du-Duk. I love the chewiness of the pancakes topped with lightly battered squid, shrimp and scallops. I also keep coming back to Man-Du-Duk for its dumplings, chewy rice cakes, and sweet potato noodle mush, which are drenched in a delightfully light, peppery chicken broth. Honestly, it’s hard for me to choose anything else!”
Our food arrived hot, full of aromas of garlic and soy. The slightly chewy rice cakes were a pillow of comfort. The dumplings had a slightly crispy shell encasing soft chicken meat inside. The accompanying cucumbers were a crunchy mix of salt, sour and spices.
“Korean food is very healthy. People should eat food that makes us strong, like fermented food,” Pomeroy said. She sells jars of her kimchi in shops around town.
Pomeroy is living the American dream. Chuck said, “She has worked hard to create a long-standing business that is highly valued by our community. She is also an active citizen. I-ho serves as one of our Bozeman City Commissioners – an important but often thankless position. And she has hosted numerous fundraisers at her restaurant for various organizations and efforts. She is a person to admire.
“Life is hard, but life is beautiful and I’m grateful,” she said. As a commissioner, “I can help other people because I get a lot of help.”
On the wall outside his restaurant, Pomeroy used the talents of local artist Julienne Sinclair to paint a tiger mural in the shape of the Korean peninsula, with the country’s name written in Korean characters and the national flower, the Rose of Sharon red hibiscus, prominently displayed .
The image is a reflection of I-Ho Pomeroy’s journey. The tiger is emblematic of her strength, bravery and courage in pursuing the American dream.