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Kimchi's ginchy 

And Korean food is comfort food.

click to enlarge BANCHAN AND BOUNTY: Kimchi's Yuk Gae Jang (foreground, right) and Jeyuk Bookeum make for quintessential cold weather food.
  • BANCHAN AND BOUNTY: Kimchi's Yuk Gae Jang (foreground, right) and Jeyuk Bookeum make for quintessential cold weather food.

Usually when a restaurant rebrands itself, it does so loudly and with fanfare. Signs reading "Under New Management!" issue a plea for soured customers to return. Almost always there is a new name above the door. Not so with Kimchi Korean Cuisine, nee the Vietnamese(ish) Van Lang Cuisine, where the transition from banh mi to bibimbap was a gradual, inconspicuous one.

Back in the late aughts, a to-go portion of hot and sour soup this diner carried home from Van Lang was so potent that it expelled tiny crimson beads of condensation around its styrofoam takeout cup. Maybe that should have prompted some questions about the quality of Van Lang's paper goods, but the soup was bright and spicy, and also potent enough, evidently, to banish all signs of an oncoming bout of sniffles, so we weren't asking any questions. The experience also left us with a streak of loyalty to the strip mall spot — one that may well have faded if we'd visited more recently, when Van Lang's reviews appear to have taken a turn for the dismal.

Van Lang is no more, though; a Korean family took over the spot unceremoniously a couple of years ago, introducing new dishes and, reviews indicated, improved existing Korean staples like bibimbap and Yuk Gae Jang. Only in May 2017 did they adopt a new name and a new neon sign for the restaurant.

We visited Kimchi for a weeknight dinner just after its nine-month anniversary, pulling into the parking lot across from UA Little Rock and pausing quizzically at the giant storefront curtain that's stretched across both windows — a world map bifurcated by the restaurant's double doors, with the words "Korean Restaurant" superimposed on Nevada. Wall posters of popular items like Gal-Bi (short ribs) and Jjampong (seafood noodle soup) shout to incoming diners, their names neatly printed below each supersized photo. Michael MacDonald's Korean counterpart sang tenderly and emotively from a speaker near the back of the room, and near a display counter near the front door hung posed photos of the owners with Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner and the crew from a local news station.

Kimchi's extensive list of bubble teas was tempting, but this diner opted for one of Kimchi's three Korean beers — a feather-light lager called Hite. If you're into Stella Artois, you'll dig Hite, which was served to us in a tall, elegant frosted glass. Our companion went for hot tea.

We'd read the Nokdu-Jeon ($5.99), a Korean pancake, was a must. That turned out to be an understatement. Every culture, it seems, has its version of this comfort dish — the latke, the crepe or another no-frills pan fry number that can be easily churned out on a weeknight when time is scarce, or on a holiday to satiate famished family members while the main attraction finishes its time in the oven. Kimchi's version was, in our dining companion's words, "like something somebody's mom would make," an eggy, dinner plate-sized disc streaked with julienned green onion and served so piping hot that it was spongy on the inside and irresistibly caramelized and crisp on the outside. It's what we imagine we'd be handed from within the windows of a concession truck at the Arkansas State Fair named "Seoul Food," were there such a thing. The Nokdu-Jeon didn't make it out the door with us, but if it had, it would've been grounds for a midnight refrigerator raid. We also opted for the Spring Rolls ($3.99), inoffensive but unremarkable logs of rice paper stuffed with shrimp and lots of shredded green leaf lettuce. Those might have gone ignored altogether, were it not for the exercise in contrasts that came alongside: a delicate peanut sauce and a tangy red chili pepper sauce. For what it's worth, the spring rolls offered a counterbalance to the heft elsewhere in the meal.

The main dishes, the Yuk Gae Jang ($12.99) and the Jeyuk Bookeum ($12.99), arrived in short order, as did everything else on our visit. Perhaps it's because the nighttime pace at Kimchi is a little more leisurely, but our server — a tall, jolly young man with thick black-rimmed glasses and a sweet disposition — was prompt, quick to laugh and unfailingly eager to answer any questions.

The Yuk Gae Jang was a thick tangle of shredded brisket, shiitake mushroom, green and white onion, egg, mung bean sprouts and a Korean green called gosari or fernbrake, served in a mixing-bowl-sized portion alongside a cup of perfectly steamed rice, sticky enough to hold its place in the soup, dry enough to soak up the deeply flavored chili broth. If there is a Korean dish to eat when it is 23 degrees outside, this is it. The Jeyuk Bookeum was a hefty stir-fry of shredded pork, dotted with slivers of zucchini and carrot that had evidently been given time enough with the pork to lend it a rich depth. Warning: Jeyuk Bookeum can be on the oily side, so if you're the type of person who cuts every bit of fat away from your butterflied pork chop, this probably isn't the dish for you.

Korean places are perhaps known best by their banchan, the selection of small side dishes to be eaten on their own or as supplements to the main dish, and we'd heard Kimchi kept the banchan sparse. Maybe that's true, but the four small accompaniments to our meal were just enough to vary the palette a little: a dish of cubed daikon radish covered in a gochujang paste, some noodle-like fish cakes with accents of carrot, a clump of cold mung bean sprouts and, of course, a small dish of kimchi, which our server told us was "fresh; just made a couple of days ago." He was spot on; the dish was still crunchy and not wilted by the fermentation process kimchi undergoes.

Despite swearing before that the cold weather had made us ravenous, we were full long before the bottom of our bowls was in sight, and most of our meal ended up coming home with us to double as lunch the next day. A nightcap wasn't in the cards, but if it had been, we'd love to have mimicked the three older men in the corner booth, who were telling stories, leaning far back in their seats for big belly laughs and sipping cold, high-ABV soju from shot glasses.

Kimchi Korean Cuisine
3700 S. University Ave.
501-570-7700

Quick bite

For anyone who remembers the table flags from the days when Casa Bonita still made its home in the nearby Village Shopping Center at Asher and University, you might find a reminder at Kimchi: Each table has a tiny call button on its corner for summoning the server. We never needed it, but were tempted to use it anyway. Also, check out the lunch specials: beef stew ($9.99), kimchi stew ($9.99), bulgogi beef ($11.99) or the lunch portion of the Jeyuk Bookeum ($9.99). Desserts were nowhere to be found on the menu, but if you've got a sweet tooth, check out the array of bubble teas: mango, taro, coconut, honeydew and strawberry.

Hours

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday.

Other info

Beer, wine, sake and soju, credit cards accepted.
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