Everything you thought you knew about kimchi is about to change.
The fiery, cabbage-y condiment served alongside most every Korean dish is being reinvented by a gutsy Prospect Heights chef, who is stretching the limits of the fermented food by using it to add flourish to Mexican fare.
In fact, the common side dish is often the main attraction at Phillip Lee’s Kimchi Grill — a storefront outpost of his popular kimchi-focused food truck.
“Even before the Kimchi Taco Truck, we had always planned to open as a brick-and-mortar restaurant first, but we thought it was too risky,” said Lee. “Our concept was really like nothing out there, so we wanted to avoid risk by getting our name out, getting people familiar with the concept, and that’s why we started with the food truck.”
Once Lee’s brand of hybrid street-food became widely known, he picked a happening block on the border of Prospect Heights — a neighborhood he describes as “awesome.”
The chief advantage of moving from a mobile eatery to a sit-down restaurant is the bigger kitchen, which lets Lee experiment with new menu items that aren’t available on the truck, like the kimchi goat cheese quesadilla and the ssam wrap with Korean fried chicken.
The quesadilla, which comes drizzled with a miso-infused crema Mexicana, is an unexpected triumph. The creamy tanginess of the goat cheese and the robust, acid-burn of the spicy pickled cabbage dazzle in their nearly alchemical ability to come together.
The ssam wrap is almost as good. The only thing holding it back is the chef’s middling use of shiso leaf, an unnecessary ingredient that points to the culinary-mindedness of whomever conceived it, but doesn’t quite work alongside the chicken, which is cooked to crispy perfection.
What’s the secret to Lee’s empire? In his words: “It helps to make good food.” Combine that with the right neighborhood, and the right price-point, and he may just have himself a recipe for longevity.
Kimchi Grill [766 Washington Ave., between Sterling and Park places, (718) 360–1839, www.kimchigrill.com].