After Hours: Kimbap Chunkuk in South Korea
Feeling the sequestration blues and worried about that impending 20 percent pay cut? If you’re a civilian in South Korea working for Uncle Sam, you’re in luck, even if he decides to give you that unwanted day off each week. Here, you can buy lunch for less than the cost of a Happy Meal, and feed a family of four for less than the equivalent of $10.
It’s virtually impossible to walk down a street in South Korea without tripping over a kimbap restaurant, perfect for anyone who is hungry and on a shoestring budget. The food is hearty, relatively healthful and, most importantly for the furloughed government employee, dirt cheap.
One of the most popular franchises is Kimbap Chunkuk, which translates to Kimbap Heaven. The signature dish is — you guessed it — kimbap, a skinny roll of veggies, mayonnaise and meat wrapped in rice and salty dried seaweed, sliced and served with the obligatory side of kimchi, that many foreigners refer to incorrectly as Korean sushi. Basic kimbap starts at 1500 won (about $1.37; ask for woncho kimbap), and fancier versions with tuna, assorted vegetables or cheese for 2500 won. A deluxe roll with every topping available won’t break the bank at 3500 won, or $3.20.
Kimbap Chunkuk also serves a range of Korean staples, such as udong, a noodle soup; bibimbap, rice topped with vegetables and gochujang, a spicy pepper sauce; mandu, meat-filled dumplings; and ramen noodles topped with cheese (pronounced “cheeju ramyeon” in Korean).
This is both Korean comfort food and Korean fast food. Your meal is cooked to order and usually is served within minutes; ask for takeout if you’re in a hurry. If you’re watching carbs, this isn’t the place for you, as virtually every dish features white rice in some form.
It’s hard to splurge here. The two costliest items on the menu — larger meals with fried pork, fish or hamburgers and sides of rice — cost just 7000 won each, or approximately $6.43.
The formula is so successful that there are in fact four companies named Kimbap Chunkuk. There are also chains named Kimbap Nara (Kimbap Country), Kimbap Café, Jonoro Kimbap, Kimgane Kimbap (Kim’s Family House Kimbap) and Kimbap Sesang (Kimbap World).
Wherever you go, the menu and the layout of each restaurant is virtually the same. Just inside the front door is a counter stocked with kimbap ingredients — strips of carrot, spinach, fried egg, radish, ham and seasoned burdock root — where you can watch your chef/waitress/door greeter assemble your roll. Behind the counter are rows of tables; walk in and seat yourself.
On a recent visit to a Kimbap Chunkuk branch near U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, I ordered chamchi chigae, or tuna stew. First to arrive was the customary plate of side dishes: kimchi, mushrooms, seaweed topped with gochujang, and danmuji, or pickled yellow radishes. Within five minutes, the main course arrived: a bubbling stone bowl of spicy broth, filled with tuna, tart kimchi, sliced onions, mushrooms and cubes of tofu.
My bill: 4500 won, or about $4.15.
This Kimbap Chunkuk, as with every other kimbap joint I’ve visited, has the feel of a laid-back mom and pop diner. When I arrived for a late lunch on a chilly February afternoon, the restaurant was nearly empty and two cooks sat at a table behind me cleaning a pile of green onions while the news blared on a television in the background. The cook tallied another table’s bill on a calculator as she yelled my order back to the kitchen.
A space heater beside my table heated the room. Water was self-serve and napkins were stored in a dispenser on the wall.
Menus at kimbap restaurants are written in Korean, but if you can read hangeul you can easily order from the menu posted on the wall. Or, tell the waitress the name of your favorite Korean dish; it’s probably on the menu.
If you find a kimbap joint near your base, chances are good that someone who works there speaks passable English (my waitress laughed at me when I started taking pictures of my food and asked in English whether I was a tourist). The point-and-smile method of ordering always works, as many of these restaurants have pictures of some menu items posted on the wall.
If you go, don’t forget to thank Uncle Sam — or John Boehner, or Barack Obama, or your favorite politician — for giving you an extra day off to experience this slice of Korean culture.
Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this story.
Location: Kimbap Chunkuk has branches across South Korea, and they’re easily spotted by their orange signs.
To get to the Namyeong Station branch, walk out one of the exits and look left across the street. You’ll see the store’s orange sign above the door and the words “Kimbab Café” written in English in the window.
A five-minute taxi ride from U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan to Namyeong Station costs about 2500 won.
Hours: The Namyeong Station branch is open 24 hours, and other kimbap restaurants have similar hours.
Prices: Between 1500 won and 7000 won. Most dishes cost between 2500 won and 5000 won.
Clientele: Anyone who wants a quick and hearty meal: students, blue-collar workers, wealthy Koreans, expats.
Dress: Anything goes. You’ll see students in their school uniforms, teenage girls in sweatshirts and pajama bottoms, businessmen in suits, etc.
Information: Phone: 719-3616; website kimbab007.com/menuinfo/menuinfo01.html?mf=mn2 (in Korean only).