One of Charleston's finest chefs first introduced me to Kim's Restaurant, a West Ashley paradise that's really several places in one. Located in a strip mall, Kim's is a locally-owned funhouse of diverse Pacific Rim cuisine that serves a mean dolsot bibimbap, but more about that in a minute.
The multi-regional influences of Kim's is advertised right there on the menu and the sign above the door, but every time I walked through the door before my aforementioned friend turned me on to the other options, I took the safe route to the entertaining seats in the back where the cooks wear funny hats while chopping veggies and serving piles of seared rice flecked with half-burnt sesame seeds on the hibachi grills. Surely someone, somewhere, has lost an eyebrow from the spewing flames of the burning onion towers.
It's practically a familial obligation to agree to such a spectacle, made bearable only because Kim's also serves some damn fine sushi to go with the family fun.
But Kim's also attracts a large non-hibachi-going crowd. If you ignore the cackles, screams, and shooting flames that emanate from the circus in the back, it's a rather staid place up front, with a standard sushi bar setup, dark well-worn wood tables, and a separate Korean menu which the mostly-Asian clientele focuses on. From Hoeng-Uh-Hah (spicy raw stingray with vegetables, $13.50) to Du-Bu-Mu-Chem (firm tofu topped with a special hot and spicy sauce, $10.50), it's likely that you'll find something you've never tried and probably can't properly pronounce.
The house specialties surround the art of Bul-Go-Ki (Korean barbecue, $13.95), thinly sliced beef, chicken, and pork marinated in sweet soy sauce and sesame oil with the spicy snap of ginger and garlic thrown in, grilled into delicious little slivers, and served with steamed rice and at least half a dozen little plates of house-made condiments ranging from a mild sautÃƒÂ© of greens with sesame and soy, to pickled cabbage with nuclear ambitions. There are also interesting Korean eggrolls bursting with cabbage (fried $4.95, and steamed $6.95), little green onion pancakes ($6.95), tempura fried sweet potatoes ($4.25), and a rather poor excuse for fried squid ($5.50).
The waiter will tell you that most "ordinary" people order the Bul-Kal-Bi ($16.25), beef ribs marinated, grilled, and then glazed in a sticky sweet sauce. They're addictive, even if they're not as tender as one might hope.
But the secret dish lies hidden at the bottom of the menu, receiving no fanfare – not even a description. It's simply labeled "Stone Bowl" with a price of $11.50. If chirashizushi, that big pile of raw fish over rice that graces the menu at every decent sushi house, defines the graceful balance of heavenly simplicity, then dolsot bibimbap most certainly hails from the underworld. It begins with a super-heated crag of rock. A medieval crackle hails its arrival, a simple gray stone bowl giving off waves of heat that bend the light like blacktop in mid-July, full of rice searing against the stone and slivers of Bol-Go-Ki piled high among steamed vegetables, bean sprouts, other various odd bits, and a barely fried egg just beginning to solidify within the inferno.
Before digging in, you must add gochujang, a fiery paste of fermented soybeans, chilies, rice powder, and honey. Too much, and the fire could overwhelm you; too little, and you'll be missing out on all the fun. Stirring it all together reveals the secret of the bowl: the colorful vegetables mingle together, creating an edible rainbow; meat juices combine with the dripping egg yolk, thickening into a rich sauce. Little sheaves of rice, deliciously browned and crispy, lift from the oiled surface of the stone, creating perfect textural contrast. The first bite brings a sudden realization of having stumbled upon one of the world's great dishes – balanced, spicy, deeply soulful, and thick with tradition.
These stone bowls deserve restaurants all to themselves. Some inventive street purveyor could make a mint selling them to college students downtown at 2 a.m., but they could sell all day: a massively filling breakfast, a farmer's lunch, a one-pot dinner. It's surprising that you don't find the stone bowl elsewhere, but its absence speaks to the unfortunate cultural uniformity prevalent in Charleston. For those who branch out, the stone bowl awaits at Kim's, fiery and ready, with a full view of the festive hibachi action that makes it all possible.