RESTAURANT REVIEW + PHOTOS: Kimchi's Korean a tasty transition in Little Rock


Photographs by Eric E. Harrison

Jeyuk Bokkeum, spicy ground pork stir-fried with vegetables and served on a skillet, is among the Korean Specials at Kimchi on South University Avenue in Little Rock.

Kimchi, a Korean restaurant, recently replaced VanLang, a Vietnamese restaurant, in the South University Avenue strip center just north of the confluence of University Avenue and Colonel Glenn Road in south central Little Rock.

It was probably only a matter of time. A Korean family took over VanLang a couple of years ago and subsequently introduced a one-page menu insert of Korean dishes. And VanLang had apparently been losing customers to nearby Mike's P̶l̶a̶c̶e̶ Cafe*, a Vietnamese restaurant nearby on Asher Avenue between University and Fair Park Boulevard.

The menu is now almost entirely Korean, with a few other Asian dishes and a couple of Vietnamese "holdovers." That includes a "Vietnamese sandwich," which appears to be a banh mi, and pho, the tangy broth with noodles and some form of protein (beef, meatballs, "beef tendon," etc.) into which the diner adds vegetables, herbs and spices to his own taste.

It is a good thing to broaden the range of this area's restaurant options in general, and Asian restaurant options in particular. Previous Korean restaurants, and there have been a couple, haven't survived. (We remember in particular a Korean restaurant sort of secreted inside a convenience store in the Rose City neighborhood of North Little Rock, the operation of which was so peculiar that we're surprised it stayed open as long as it did.)

Based on their apparent inexperience (see more below), it does not appear that the Korean family running Kimchi, which has been open about six weeks, is the same family that had been running VanLang. They have demonstrably good intentions, and hopefully they'll soon get their act together. But the number of kinks that continued to crop up, in the kitchen and in the dining room over a handful of visits doesn't provide us a whole lot of optimism.

One thing's for certain: Kimchi is not overcharging its customers. We got pretty good food in enormous portions; a number of items provide a lot of food for relatively few bucks.

The dining room hasn't changed much from what it was as VanLang -- they've rearranged the purple-teal padded booths and aging tables with teal-padded chairs to open things up a bit, and it has had a really good cleaning (it had gotten pretty down-at-heel). Five attractive art pieces now decorate the south, buff-painted wall above the wood-panel wainscotting.

Elaborate scrim maps, sheer from the outside, see-through from the inside, "cover" the windows; one of the the United States, which pinpoints Little Rock; one of Asia that locates Korea; and one of Korea. (It was kind of fun to watch passersby, unaware that folks inside could see them, taking selfies out front.)

Pop music in a language we presume is Korean blares from the sound system. There is, we're told, also a separate karaoke space, as well as a karaoke setup in the dining room which on one visit was being used to play silly songs for kids with English subtitles.

For this mission we roped in an Asian Food Expert, who, while not Korean, was at least comfortable with and certainly not frightened by various dishes we'd been eyeing askance, and helped us get over our initial shyness-slash-timidity about ordering stuff we didn't recognize, couldn't pronounce or which seemed perhaps just too risky.

Some of the starters don't sound exactly Asian (we kept meaning, and keep forgetting, to ask about the waffle fries). Our server told us the menu is still in some degree of flux; a $5.95 shrimp cocktail we inquired about turned out not to exactly exist.

We can recommend, among the enjoyable and definitely Asian, though not necessarily specifically Korean, starters like the crisp-fried dumplings ($6.50 for 10) with a soy dipping sauce; a pair of spring rolls ($3.25) that could be Chinese, could be Thai, with a vinegar-carrot laden "spring roll" sauce; and the off-menu Korean pancake ($4.99), actually more of a frittata, a thick hubcap-size, egg-based patty with embedded scallions, bits of cabbage and an unidentified meat that might have been ham.

Some of the items on the "Korean munchies" part of the menu might also qualify as appetizers -- for example, Kim-bab ($3.99), a sort of Korean sushi roll, seaweed wrapping rice with a core of surimi (quasi-crab) and vegetables, including a long central pickled root similar to a Japanese oshinko.

Others are a lot closer to full meals, and/or are designed to be shared. Tteok-bboki ($14.99) was enough to feed three, a simple version of Korean hot pot, its bright vermilion color reflecting its spiciness, which though not mouth-flaming was sufficient to induce a couple of runny noses. It came to the table boiling and bubbling so its contents (long, tubular rice cakes that looked like mozzarella sticks, flat squares of fish cake and some vegetables) could continue to cook while it rested on a tabletop burner.

We sort of unfortunately allowed our server's recommendation that it was her favorite item on the menu to sway us into ordering Tangsuyuk ($15), the Korean version of sweet-and-sour pork with a bowl of warm sweet and sour sauce with suspended vegetables and some pineapple slices. It's safe, not terribly exciting, but qualifies as comfort food, and it'd be perfect for your picky kids.

The bargain find in this category was the Korean Style Ramen ($4.99), an amplitude of firm, curling noodles in a huge (certainly for five bucks) bowl of steaming broth, orange, nicely spicy but not inflammatory.

We also enjoyed our Yangnyeom Chicken ($14.99), one of the few dishes we could actually pronounce, boneless chicken in a "Korean spicy sauce with peanut." We had envisioned a Korean version of the Chinese Kung Pao, but it's really a lot closer to General Tso's Chicken, batter-fried, dark-meat chunks tossed and almost over-coated with a generous, thick, glutinous, orange, mildly spicy-slightly sweet sauce.

That initial desire for staying safe led Intrepid Companion to go for something familiar: the Beef Pho ($7.50 medium, plenty big for one person, $8.50 large). It proved to be a disappointment, mostly because the kitchen didn't provide some of the side "necessities." Bean sprouts? Check. Lemongrass? Check. Fresh jalapenos? Check. But where was the basil? The yellow and green onions? Where was the fish sauce? The on-the-table, commercial-bottle Sriracha (which shares a rack with commercial-bottle hoisin) was an insufficient substitute for the salty-chili flavor that fish sauce should have imparted. To compound the misdemeanor, neither our server nor the folks in the kitchen understood what we were requesting; what we got was another dish of spring-roll vinegar sauce.

Among the Korean Specials, our Asian Food Expert approved, and so did we, the Jeyuk Bokkeum ($12), plenty of spicy ground/shredded pork stir-fried with onion, scallion and carrot (and even a little -- surprise -- zucchini), served, fajita-like on a hot skillet. There was enough left over for a second meal.

The Beef Short Ribs ($18) were also skillet-served, sauteed in a traditional Korean style and served in what might be a Korean style, with a pair of tongs and a pair of shears. Some of the large chunks and hard-to-negotiate strips -- hence the tongs and shears -- were tender, some a little tougher; some still had the ends of ribs to chew around. Though a little on the fatty side, it tasted great, but we would have much easier eating it if we'd had a knife.

Our server brought out a quartet of side items -- two little dishes of pleasantly spicy kimchi, one the traditionally cabbage-based, the other a daikon (a type of Japanese radish); bean sprouts; and fish cake, thin flat squares of sauteed, though unidentified, fish.

Service was earnest, though not entirely efficient. The son of the kitchen staff, helpful though not 100 percent confident, helped fix the several kitchen errors, most prominently that they had forgotten to put the fish cake in our Tteok-bboki and an apparently improperly prepared glass of Thai tea. On one evening when the restaurant was fairly busy, he and the other server on the floor, a rather clueless young woman, got completely flummoxed and we had trouble getting help even with some basic needs -- like silverware.

Weekend on 05/18/2017

Kimchi Korean Restaurant

Address: 3700 S. University Ave., Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Cuisine: Korean

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: Beer and sake

Reservations: Yes

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 570-7700

*CORRECTION: Mike’s Cafe is a Vietnamese restaurant at 5501 Asher Ave., Little Rock. A previous version of this review misidentified it.

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