Chingu was one of those new food joints that, upon its launch, brought me simultaneous hope and hesitation. As word began to spread that a new Korean restaurant from Keeyoung Kim, owner of Sura Eats in the Parlor food hall, was in the making, I scoured social media postings to stay in the know.
Chingu’s Instagram teased with dewy, saturated pictures of noodle dishes and orange peel-garnished cocktails. Kim had joined forces with some of KC’s most notable media people, from photographer Alyssa Broadus to graphic designer Frank Norton.
With the masses flocking to Westport’s newest hotspot, countless pictures of the restaurant’s neon sign casting a mesmerizing pink cloud over the bar and shelves lined with Korean spirits were shared. I prayed that Chingu served more than aesthetics.
During my second visit to Chingu, our enthusiastic young server indulged us in humorous banter, even throwing some occasional flattery my way. But all joyful repartee came to a halt when my friend and I, who had just picked over the two very filling starters of Korean pancakes and pork dumplings, proceeded to order two more dishes to share from the “Larger” section of the menu. Her eyes widened and she nodded her head as if in an attempt to understand our perceived gluttony.
“That’s a lot of food,” she said with her eyebrows raised in concern, most likely debating if she needed to repeat her initial introductory spiel: “For two people, we recommend between two to three dishes.” We maintained our order and she humbly conceded.
A plate with six massive chicken wings piled on top of one another was set at our table alongside a large clay bowl of sizzling bibimbap fixings whose depth seemed never-ending. We dug in, bumping chopsticks as we passed dishes from one side of the table to the other.
The restaurant’s neon sign was the furthest thing from my mind, and my phone even remained in my purse as the waves of dishes rolled in, a small feast gathered on our two-top. I was immersed.
All forms of pleasantries went out the window as we became enraptured by the gorgeous funk of kimchi, tore away at juicy slices of beef short rib with our teeth and ferally bit into ungodly sized Korean fried chicken wings.
A handful of Korean restaurants in Overland Park generally constitute the majority of Kansas City’s Korean food scene. While Korean barbecue has recently become more widely recognized, most likely due to its familiar name, most Korean establishments have a section of their menu dedicated to Pan-Asian dishes to appease the masses. Ramen and stir-frys are there for those unwavering diners who refuse to do their taste buds a favor by exploring traditional Korean delights like kimchi jjigae or brothy woo-guh-ji kalbi-tang. Not at Chingu.
“I didn’t want to put pad thai or udon stir-fry or ramen on my menu because I wanted to be true [to Korean food]” Kim says.
The son of first-generation Korean immigrants, Kim is intentional with his menu at Chingu, serving only Korean-inspired food and often putting his own take on traditional dishes.
On the restaurant’s small menu, all elements of Korean cuisine are accounted for, including barbecue, street food and homestyle cooking. When the servers tell you that the dishes are meant to be shared, they mean it. The large sizes are inspired by Kim’s mom, who always made massive amounts of food, divvying up the leftovers between friends and family.
Cocktails go by the names of K-pop songs like “Candy Sugar Pop” and “Dirt on My Leather.” They’re easy sippers and the Korean old fashioned is a savory marvel with the addition of gochujang sauce. But you’d be remiss to not indulge in a bottle of mellow green-apple soju for the entire table.
Small bowls of Chinese broccoli, bean sprouts, kimchi, and pickled onions and jalapenos are immediately served to accompany your dinner. The crowd favorite is the pajeon, a pan-fried savory pancake filled with cabbage, onions and perilla leaves. It’s a great introduction for those with little experience in Korean food with its straightforward flavor of fried batter and veggies. The subtle finishing salt and sweet soy sauce are beautiful pronouncers for the crunchy and dense pancake.
The moon snail salad is also a great dish. It gently nudges diners with reservations to surrender to the Korean food experience. It’s a mix of buckwheat noodles, frisee lettuce and vegetables, with chewy moon snails found throughout. Tossed in a gochujang-pear vinaigrette, this pungent salad is a roller coaster ride of textures and flavors. It’s a welcoming initiation into the flavorful depths of Korean cooking.
A bowl of kimchi stew with tofu to soak up the hearty, savory liquids should be ordered for the whole table. Use it as a dipping sauce, or order a side of white rice to combine it with. The Korean staple is a wonderment of funk, spice and leafy greens, and it was the only dish that I consumed in totality.
The meat-forward menu items include a platter of beef short ribs over a bed of charred onions, DIY pork belly wraps and juicy jumbo chicken wings. All these meats shine with elements like fermented shrimp, twenty four hour marinades, and sweet gochujang sauce.
With the restaurant only several months old, hiccups are inevitable. My friend, who had visited Chingu once before, claimed that the bossam pork dish was this time lacking the crispy outer layer he had enjoyed so much on his first visit. The homemade dumplings were good, but had soggy bottoms that undid their pan-fried crispiness. The broccoli and bean sprouts were seasoned perfectly on my first visit but not enough on the second.
When I went on a busy Friday evening, we had to wait thirty minutes to be seated despite having a reservation. We were given the option to dine at the bar to avoid the wait for our table, which we declined. When we finally sat down, a complimentary starter was given to ease our inconvenience.
Surely, Kim and his team will overcome these inconsistencies as they continue to find their stride. The minor issues I encountered are a faint memory in comparison to the overall dining experience, in which I was immersed in much more than just food.
As opposed to the Western style of ‘yours’ and ‘mine,’ Chingu’s family-style dining will have you crossing arms to exchange plates and fumbling over your fellow company for a bite of a dish you’ve likely never had before. It invokes vulnerability.
Many of us may be taking a leap of faith ordering off a menu with moon snails, silken tofu or gochugaru. So take on the mindset of a traveler exploring a foreign land. Embrace your lack of knowledge, as it’s the key to experiencing something new without the burden of expectations.
It might help you to know that Kim named his restaurant after the Korean word for “friend” for a reason. He understands that education must be offered alongside his strictly Korean menu, so all servers are prepared to answer questions and make recommendations.
With an explorer’s perspective, you’ll notice as you indulge that kimchi will splatter across the table, bare chicken bones will scatter about, and dishes will fill your table, requiring a constant reorganization. It’s a bit of a mess. But the messiness is a result of the comfort that follows when you let your guard down. It’s the process of curiosity and laughter taking precedence over practices of formality. So, let your chicken bones fall where they may and surrender to the experience