Brothers go back to their roots for the ultimate fusion cuisine.
By Megan Douress
Photography by JPG Photography (jpgphotography.com)
For brothers Jason and Jimmy Mills, food has always been a big part of their lives. Growing up with a Korean mom and a Jamaican dad, their house always smelled “like a wonderful surprise.”
“We spent a lot of family time in the kitchen,” said Jimmy Mills, co-owner and chef at The Spicy Belly. “When my brother and I were younger, I was always fascinated by the fact that Mom is cooking this food that nobody else is making.’”
Jason and Jimmy spent most of their childhood watching their mom cook flavorful concoctions, and picked up a thing or two in the kitchen. Twenty or so years later, the unique fusion of cultures lead the brothers to open their own restaurant, The Spicy Belly, at 3847 Terrace Street in January 2017.
While the two didn’t always work in the food industry, their roots were something they always looked back on.
Jason spent four years at Lafayette College in Easton, PA to study engineering. He called Wilmington, DE home after college and made the move to Manayunk six years ago after spending some time with friends who lived in the neighborhood. Jimmy was a self-proclaimed “jack of all trades” after studying business and psychology in Vermont and at Syracuse University. Upon graduating, he spent some time working in the kitchens of New York City.
“I would come home for holidays and be so beat,” Jimmy remembered. “I would tell my brother, ‘If I’m ever going to cook again, it’s going to be in my own kitchen.’”
The brothers came up with the perfect recipe for a business plan based on what they learned in school and throughout their lives — a pinch of management skills, a dash of professional culinary experience, and a whole lot of culture.
“First and foremost, we wanted to create our fan favorites — the things we loved growing up,” Jimmy said. “We wanted to make them with a more personal touch.”
“Personal” is the key here. Jason and Jimmy took notes from their mom’s recipes as the base for a lot of the dishes you can enjoy at The Spicy Belly today. The curry shrimp? That’s their mom’s traditional recipe.
“We’ve tweaked it — put our spin on it and made it less traditional,” Jason said. “It’s more vibrant. We took familiar things and gave them different kinds of flavors. We would make it and see how it turns out — a lot of trial and error.”
The brothers ultimately came up with a menu of 60 Korean-Jamaican fusion dishes to start. What they narrowed it down to have become fast fan favorites, such as the mo-bay bimbap, a traditional Korean dish that becomes Jamaican with your choice of protein; the jerk chicken cheesesteak, topped with Korean kimchi; and jerk mondu, a perfectly fried fusion dumpling.
“All the things you can’t get anywhere else, people tend to navigate to,” Jimmy said. “We make sure the quality is maintained so everything is capable of being someone’s favorite. As we see dishes going out and clean plates coming back, we know we’re doing something right.”
The menu items are just one part of their recipe, though. Get a refreshing taste of Korea with the Soju Lemonade, or dive into the Caribbean with the Elder-Mon cocktail. Pair your drink with a great plate and the perfectly curated fusion vibe of the restaurant, and you have a recipe for success.
For those who haven’t made it to the restaurant, there’s an opportunity to still get a taste of what The Spicy Belly has to offer. The brothers have vended at Firefly Music Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and even filled the bellies of those at the Democratic National Convention two summers ago.
“We were right there on Vine Street in 99 degree heat — dreadful — as our first event,” Jimmy laughed. “We had no idea what to expect. They told us to prepare for 10,000 people, so here we are not knowing that 10,000 is the entire day, not just people stopping by our tent. We had coolers full of chicken!”
They’ve also embraced the community they now live and work in. Recently, they’ve been in talks other new businesses, such as Scallywags Dog Daycare and Tubby Robot Ice Cream Factory, who has a hand in some of the ice cream on The Spicy Belly’s menu. They’ve also held fundraisers for local schools and North Light Community Center.
“We’re very community-driven because that’s how we grew up,” Jimmy remembered. “We want to be a part of the success here.”
A big part of that is taking care of their customers. They’re extremely conscious of food allergies and restrictions.
“A lot of curry is made in batches, but ours is made to order,” Jimmy said. “If you want our curry but can’t have garlic, we’ll just leave the garlic out.”
“We have a lot of people who have gluten allergies, so we use rice flour for a lot of our menu items,” Jason added. “It gives our fried chicken a different crunch. I never thought I would have a better wing than a jerk wing, but Seoul wings are everything you want in a wing. They’re crispy, spicy, and sweet. They’re so good — I eat them every other day!”
When asked what Jimmy’s favorite menu item is, he lists a few items before his brother mocks him laughing, “I like everything — it’s hard to remember what I don’t like of mine.”
And while “spicy” is the name of the game, they are considerate of guests who can’t handle the heat.
“We want our customers to have a great experience when they come here,” Jimmy said. “A lot of our first-timers have questions — ‘What is jerk sauce?’ ‘Do you have anything that isn’t spicy?’ We put our staff through rigorous training so they can answer those questions and give options. If you don’t want jerk shrimp on your tacos, try the grilled shrimp. It’s those little subtleties that lets people know that we’re in it for them as well.”
The care they have for their customers comes through in the food they serve out of their kitchen. In fact, when guests of similar backgrounds come in and try their food, Jason and Jimmy take their feedback into consideration.
“If the rice and peas isn’t the way they make it at home, they’re going to let us know about it — not to say they don’t finish the whole bowl!” Jimmy laughed. “They’ll always say, ‘I put this in mine,’ and I listen to them. I’m not done learning yet. Those little nuances gives me that Plan B and Plan C if I ever want to change things up.”
This summer, you can expect to see some of those changes on their menu. Diners who stopped by during this past Spring Restaurant Week got a sneak peak at some new seasonal additions as many of those menu items made it onto the permanent menu.
“They see our new additions and feel that their voice is being heard. That’s part of the dining experience at the end of the day,” Jimmy said.
“We never say never — there’s never a can’t or a don’t or a won’t,” he added. “We want to work with people. That’s part of why we’re here, and we’re scratching that surface now. There isn’t a bite we can’t chew.”