Kim Cheese combines one of the nation's hottest culinary trends with one of my personal restaurant obsessions. The trend is Mexican-Korean fusion: tacos and burritos stuffed with Korean barbecue and garnished, if you like, with pungent kim chi. Los Angeles birthed this trend, but it has proven wildly successful even where it doesn't make a lick of demographic sense. Here in St. Louis, the food truck Seoul Taco draws a crowd wherever it parks, and its owners recently opened a storefront in the Delmar Loop.
My obsession is local, independent restaurants that open in shuttered fast-food joints. I take a mental snapshot whenever I see one: the taqueria inside the familiar curved façade of a Taco Bell; the Indian buffet that took over a Pizza Hut and for a while called itself Tandoori Hut. I admire the business sense, equal parts savvy and scrappy, and I love the implied middle digit waved at corporate-chain conformity.
The Moon family opened Kim Cheese this past August in a former Dairy Queen on Olive Boulevard in Chesterfield. Driving past, you might still mistake it for a Dairy Queen. The exterior still bears that chain's contemporary design, with a stone column taller than the building itself front and center. (The Moons painted eye-catching blue and yellow horizontal stripes on either side of this column, but the city of Chesterfield ruled this a code violation and forced them to change it.) The interior retains the standard fast-food setup: You order and pick up your food at the counter, which faces a small, sparely decorated dining room. The Moons also preserved the functioning drive-through lane.
Kim Cheese's "Korean BBQ Tacos" are the most straightforward example of Korean-Mexican cuisine: your choice of a flour or corn tortilla filled with grilled rib-eye steak, "spicy" pork or chicken and topped with shredded cheese, whole corn kernels and chopped onion and tomato. On the side you receive a tiny container of either mild or spicy salsa or, if you know to ask for it, sriracha chile sauce. The meat conveys the Korean flavors — the gently sweet marinade of the steak, the mild chile heat of the pork — while the vegetables, cheese and salsa ape traditional tacos.
The burrito brings either rib-eye steak or chicken, plus fried rice, lettuce, tomato and cheese, folded inside a flour tortilla. I opted for the chicken, which struck me as rather muted in flavor, hinting at something like sesame and garlic without getting there. The fried rice, dotted with hunks of scrambled egg, stole the show.
The most intriguing dish at Kim Cheese might be the "burgers." Strictly speaking, these aren't burgers but steak sandwiches served on hamburger buns. The "Kim Cheese Burger" pairs thin slices of grilled rib eye with a generous serving of kim chi and tops them, classic burger-style, with tomato, onion and a slice of American cheese. The savory-sweet beef, the funky kim chi and the tangy cheese manage to surprise at the same time the combo presses your fast-food-pleasure buttons.
You might notice the absence of a Mexican element to this "burger." Nor is there anything distinctive about a side of french fries except that they are unimpeachable: crisp outside and cloud-soft inside. The most promising aspect of Kim Cheese is that, in its own small way, it seems to be pushing past the Korean-Mexican trend to something both quirkier and more universally appealing: a quality-conscious, Korean-Mexican-American fast-food mashup.
The same week that I visited Kim Cheese, I also stopped by another restaurant that opened on Olive in west county in August: Potbelly Sandwich Shop. This is the first St. Louis location for the Chicago-based chain, which now spreads across seventeen states and Washington, D.C. Based on the long lines in which I stood on each of my visits, I can only assume that Potbelly's arrival in our market has been greatly anticipated.
Why all the commotion? I don't know. Potbelly turns out decent toasted deli sandwiches — nothing more, nothing less. Its signature sandwich is called "A Wreck" (not the Wreck, but a Wreck, suggesting a universe of other wrecks to which we are not yet privy): salami, roast beef, ham, turkey and Swiss cheese on crusty white (or multigrain, if you prefer) bread. Despite containing four different meats, it's a pretty restrained sandwich. Only by adding your selections from the standard array of vegetables and condiments does it become even a little messy.
The "Pizza Sandwich" is messy by nature: beef meatballs and pepperoni with marinara sauce, provolone cheese, mushrooms and oregano-heavy Italian seasonings. Like "A Wreck," though, it's nothing greater than the sum of its parts — a perfectly acceptable meatball sub. Potbelly does bake superb sugar and oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookies, which sit individually wrapped at the cash register, tempting you, tempting you, until you say, "Screw it" and put one on your tray.
Maybe the most distinctive thing about Potbelly was the guy who sat on a stool in a corner of the dining room, playing an acoustic guitar. Merely lunchtime entertainment, or the Pied Piper luring hungry businesspeople from Creve Coeur and beyond? Should his magic fail and the novelty of Potbelly wear off, I can think of a killer Korean-Mexican-American concept that could use a larger space.