Pull up a chair for home cooking — Korean style.
When chef/owner Yeon-Hee Chung talks about her restaurant, Charim, the conversation keeps coming back to the nokdojeon. “This is very authentic food,” she says of the Korean-style pancake with mung beans, kimchi, and bean sprouts. “It’s eaten during celebrations,” such as Korean New Year, or a birthday party for an elder family member. Despite its role in traditional culture, Chung has noticed that other Korean restaurants in town don’t serve it. “It’s a lot of work,” she acknowledges: the dried mung beans have to be soaked for hours, then ground into a paste. “But worth it.”
Charim (pronounced “cha,” as in cha-cha-cha, “rim,” as in Pacific Rim) means “the table is set,” and Chung chose that name to offer a welcome to her customers. In her 17 years in Louisville — her husband studied at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — she has stayed busy studying English and working toward a business management degree. But she also felt pulled to share her heritage with the denizens of her adopted city in a way that “feels comfortable, like home,” she says. To that end — and with zero restaurant experience — early last year, she opened Charim.
It’s a small space, with 13 tables in a prosaic dining room in the Oeschli Avenue strip that also houses Havana Rumba. Other restaurants have come and gone here. But what might make the difference for Charim is its dedication to home cooking. In that spirit, Chung has kept her menu simple. Each meal begins with banchan, a collection of small side dishes or accompaniments that make for a colorful and varied table. In the menu’s entrees column, there’s one beef dish, one pork, one chicken, one short rib (because if you’re doing Korean, you have to offer short ribs). There’s grilled bulgogi ($15), the familiar marinated beef in soy sauce. A wildly popular item is the hot stone bibim bab ($13), a rice dish with assorted vegetables in a spicy sauce, with an egg on top. Served in a sizzling hot stone bowl, the dish comes together when you break the egg and mix it up, cooking the egg in the process.
Chung is proud of her kimchi, which she makes fresh, and of her seasonings, many of which she imports from Korea. She believes fervently in the health benefits of Korean dining, with its emphasis on fresh vegetables. (You won’t find MSG in Chung’s kitchen.) But she isn’t looking to challenge her customers. “I don’t serve things people don’t know how to eat,” she says. The items on her menu are exactly the same as what she cooks at home. “It’s not Americanized, not fusion style. This is how we’re really eating.” It’s the food you’d find if you traveled to Korea. The thing is, she says, “If they don’t visit Korea, they can taste it over here.”
Charim Korean Restaurant
4123 Oeschli Ave.