I have reviewed some small eateries in this space, perhaps none smaller than O’Kims, where, with only seven items on the menu, I might run out of things to say. But I needed to call attention to this place because the food is, in a word, amazeballs!
1164 Smith St.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays to Wednesdays, 5 to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Cost: About $25 for two for lunch or dinner
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – average
* – below average
O’Kims is another in a string of Korean eateries with one woman at the helm, requiring some patience on diners’ part, and, owner Hyun Kim joked, people should bring their own chairs. With only two bar-style seats available in the shop’s window, a stool and child’s table were dragged over to make room for me on a recent afternoon. All of a sudden, memories of family weddings sprang to mind as I recalled that, as the youngest of cousins, my siblings and I sat at the children’s tables well into adulthood.
It’s too bad this place is a takeout business, because it’s really a place where I would love to linger with friends over good food enjoyed best on the spot.
And no, she’s not Irish and didn’t make the connection to the “O’ ” designation, but people keep asking and she explained that adding the “O” is the Korean equivalent of saying, “Wow!”
As unbiased as I try to be in rating restaurants, there’s a natural tendency to be more lenient with small restaurant operators who might not have the resources and technical expertise of those in larger, higher-end establishments. Passion can be a great equalizer.
What we have in Kim is a double threat, with both passion and technical skill gained working in French, Italian and Japanese kitchens. She has applied all that she’s learned to her native cuisine to develop a unique contemporary Korean style, most evident in dishes of pork belly ($9.99) and spicy chicken ($9.99).
At a high-end restaurant you would pay $25 to $35 for pork belly like Kim’s Confit Pork Belly Brulee, and chances are it would not be as good. The dish takes three days to prepare, from marinating and drying the pork, to the confit process that results in a tender, melt-in-your-mouth quality. The pork is served over Korean black rice (purple to our eyes after cooking) that is full of phytonutrients and antioxidants, with sesame leaves, a green salad, pickled onions, miso sauce and kim chee. It’s the plate lunch equivalent of bo-ssam, or Korean pork wraps.
Then there’s the chicken, marinated 12 hours before frying to help make it juicy and flavorful on the inside with a pleasant light potato starch crisp to the exterior. The chicken is also layered over black rice, served with greens and crisped gnocchi — with a chewy texture reminiscent of tteokbokki, the Korean soft rice cake — to cut some of the spice.
Kim grew up in Busan, South Korea, where seafood is king and visits to Jagalchi Market, Korea’s largest seafood market, were a norm. Beyond the seafood dishes her mom put on the table, Kim became fascinated by Korean royal court cuisine of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), eventually learning to prepare such dishes.
She moved to Hawaii 11 years ago to join her father, a fisherman, and to enter Kapiolani Community College’s culinary program. After graduating she worked in several local kitchens and, with her father, briefly ran a poke shop before starting work at a sushi restaurant. There she dreamed of one day becoming as skilled as the house master chef, and with great hope and earnestness said she asked him, “One day, in 10 years, if I learn from you, can I make really good sushi?”
“He said, ‘I don’t think so. Food is culture; you need to know about everything,’” she said.
That might have been a sad day for her, but it was lucky for the rest of us because that led Kim back to her roots.
Other dishes on her menu include bori bibimbap ($8.99), with strips of seasonal vegetables such as eggplant and daikon, beautifully layered with clove and bean sprouts over a fluffy mixture of barley and rice, much healthier than rice alone. Add slices of kalbi for $5 more, or chicken for $3.
Tender short-rib kalbi steak ($9.99) is another plate-lunch option served over purple rice with green salad, root vegetables and kim chee.
Dishes of delicate miso butterfish with a side of dried anchovies ($12.99) and saba with Kim’s teriyaki sauce ($9.99) are a nod to her coastal hometown, and her kim chee fried rice ($9.99) is tossed with pancetta and mozzarella, then folded into a thin omelette. Mozzarella is a big deal in Korea, where millennials have discovered that cheese goes with everything.
Kim says her short-term goal is to have a bigger restaurant, saying “a couple of tables would be good.” I would hope for more.
She says her long-term goal is to travel and continue learning more about cuisines of other countries. So, whatever the size of her operation, enjoy it while you can.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.