Thursday, January 24, 2013 / 5:00 PM
Long our expert opinion it has been that little has so impoverished the St. Louis dining scene quite so tragically at the demise of Lucky House. Lucky House was the establishment in Maryland Heights that specialized in Mexican/Fujian cuisine. Lots of great memories of that place, and it wasn’t just the tasty Sino-Hispanic hybrids on the menu.
We will never forget the day a guy walked in and, standing next to us at the counter, gave the once over to the high school girl whose family ran the place and who then asked her, “Do you speak English?” (She was a junior at John Burroughs at the time.) When he’d ordered and walked away, she looked at us and delivered, with deadpan perfection, the line from Ferris Bueller: “What country does he think this is?”
(In the interest of full disclosure, we once showed up at Lucky House with a plastic bag full to the brim with eels, on which we’d gotten a great eel deal and had subsequently realized our eel eyes were bigger than our eel appetite. After this gift, we very often dined gratis at Lucky House and were more often than not given off the menu stuff—although we never did have the courage to tackle the Moo-goo-gai-Panchito Burrito.)
That’s why we were so excited to hear about Kim Cheese, advertised as a Mexican-Korean hybrid. Visions of chipotle-spiked soondobu were dancing in our heads. It took a while for the place to open. One problem was that the city of Chesterfield decided the color scheme of the exterior was too bright. (Chesterfield’s City Motto: We’re Drab & That’s Okay.) Once they got things going, though, we were there (before and existing exteriors below)
The place itself is intriguing. A former Dairy Queen. In a strip mall that also houses a place called Yakuza Sushi (which is something like naming a gyro place Café Al Qaeda) and a Korean karaoke bar. (The concept of “Korean karaoke” is only moderately less frightening than the “24-Hour Bollywood Channel” being added to your cable TV lineup.)
The interior’s pretty simple—and you’ll have plenty of time to look around if you get there around noon, when the place is packed tighter than jeans at a Trace Atkins concert. (The restroom is an architectural study in effective space use.) Booths and a short bar with stools; probably 20 people can fit inside Kim Cheese if the sense of personal space of all 20 runs towards the Economy Class on an airplane.
Spend the time you’ll be standing waiting in line to study the menu. Which is harder than it sounds; the descriptions aren’t exactly flowery: Listings like “Ribeye steak burrito,” and ”Salad Asia” don’t convey a lot of information. A couple of suggestions on your first visit:
Kim Cheese’s pork tacos are delightful if you want to get the sense of this place. Tortillas, heated soft on a griddle with olive oil, and stuffed with chunks of pork that’s marinated in one of the great treasures of Korean cookery: soy sauce, sesame seed oil, garlic, green onions, and the invariable Mystery Ingredient. The workers at Kim Cheese were noncommittal when we asked. In some Korean eateries, the sweetener in the marinade is honey, in others, just sugar. Asian pear juice is traditional, though purists argue over whether to add just the juice or the pulp as well. And a lot of places, even in Korea now, swear by Coke or some pineapple juice. Whatever they’re using at Kim Cheese, it lends just a nice, light sweetness to the meat.
The tacos, three to an order (above), are big, loaded with a homemade pico de gallo, and a generous portion of kimchi. Think of it as Mexican Seoul Food.
There is a splendid serendipity, by the way, in a taco decorated with kimchi. While it’s considered iconic Korean fare, kimchi didn’t make it onto the Korean table until fairly recently in that country’s history, when chili peppers were introduced there. Chile peppers from: Mexico. Nice symmetry, huh? (Alas, tragically and thoughtlessly, the Koreans utterly ignored the Joys of Locavorism.)
Note here, that if you’re thinking of the palate-searing, flamethrower heat of kimchi as you may have had it in other Korean eateries, you’re going to be surprised. This version of kimchi is the kind that’s popular in the midsection of Korea. It’s very mild-mannered, with just a touch of the hot bean paste that gives other forms of this pickled cabbage its fire. Additionally, Kim Cheese’s version is without any of the fish sauce that gives other varieites of kimchi their salty smack. It’s so pleasantly mild it’s just like a more flavorful version of the lettuce on an ordinary burger. They’ll give you some to try for free.
You’ll want to work your way through the menu; this is a place that demands repeat visits. Do yourself a favor, though, if you haven’t been. On your first visit, try the burger (above). The bun’s from Fazio’s Bakery. It’s good enough by itself. Instead of hamburger, the meat is chopped ribeye that’s marinated in the same, beautifully aromatic recipe as the pork tacos (see above). Then it’s loaded onto that bun. And topped with a hefty dollop of that same kimchi—and if you want, some of the cheese that gives the place its name.
(There are, we have it on good authority, some Arsenal football fans in St. Louis—you Gunners know who you are. You know, too what you call an Arsenal fan in a suit: the accused. Anyway, if you’ve been to the Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, you’ll know the little stall right outside the gates that’s been selling this same version of what they call bulgogi burgers and who claim credit for creating the sandwich.)
If you’re thinking there’s no point in ordering a burger without fries, you are in luck. Kim Cheese cuts their own, right there in the kitchen, and fries ‘em up and they are absolutely delicious, salty, with a crunchy exterior and a soft, beautifully starchy interior.
Normally, we’re the ones who put the “shun” in fusion. Every once in a while, though, someone comes along with a culinary coupling that works. Lucky House did it. So has Kim Cheese.
13435 Olive (corner of Olive and Woodsmill)
Lunch and dinner daily
On Facebook: Kim Cheese
Food photography by Kevin A. Roberts
Kim Cheese exterior above left by Ryan Hildebrand; above right by Jennifer Silverberg for the RFT.
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