The walls of Mama Kim's restaurant on downtown King Street look more like a family photo album than anything. Hundreds of photos have been framed and decorate the hallway. In most of them, "Mama" Kim Brown in her signature black T-shirt is surrounded by smiling kids and families, from College of Charleston ball players to Bill Murray and his sons. In the back dining room, teams from area schools have framed and signed jerseys and pictures dedicated to Mama.
Mama Kim is the center of a big extended family on King Street, serving as the surrogate mother for kids living on campus far away from home. Her restaurant is also the heart of the teenage scene downtown. They circle through the dining room on their regular tour of King Street, stopping in to eat their favorite bowl of shrimp and rice or a plate of sushi, meeting with friends, chatting with Mama. Most of them have been captured on the photo wall and take pride in pointing their pics out to each other.
Bring a baby in, and she'll disappear with it. "My kitchen guy Charlie ... says, oh lord, she found a baby."
Next thing you know, that baby is 14 and coming by with a group of friends. If Mama sees a table full of college athletes, she'll slip them extra portions to help cover the calories she knows they're burning. It's the same when she feeds her family at home; she's constantly filling up plates.
Mama can't celebrate her birthday without her phone ringing constantly with well wishes. Gifts and flowers are delivered to the restaurant for her birthday, Valentine's Day, and Mother's Day while her Facebook explodes with comments too. She can't run an errand without getting stopped. It's so bad her husband doesn't want to go with her.
On a recent day, I stopped into the restaurant to see Mama in action. A table of beefy military men dressed in matching khaki shirts sat down to dine. Before long a tray came out from the kitchen full of tiny plates of pickles, kimchi, hot radish, kongnamul (cold boiled bean sprouts in sesame oil), sigeumchi namul (garlicky spinach with sesame oil and soy sauce), kongjaban (black beans in soy sauce and sugar), and more. Mama, unable to help herself, hopped up from our interview to help serve the guys, bustling in and out of the kitchen with a pair of metal tongs, bringing rice and sauces and whatever else they needed. I didn't take her desertion personally. As her son James pointed out, she can't sit still for more than 20 minutes at a time.
When Kim Brown came to this country from South Korea 40 years ago at the age of 20, she went to beauty school and ran Kim's Beauty Salon in West Ashley for 15 years. She stills sees some of her old customers, and sometimes even their grandkids, but her dream was to open up a restaurant.
Her father told her that if you work hard for your money, you appreciate it, and you won't if you don't.
"Anybody, you work what you get out of it," she says. "You don't work, you cannot get it."
Brown opened Kim's Korean in West Ashley in 1987. It had both a Korean side with sushi and grilling tables and a Japanese side with 10 hibachi tables, one of the only places that offered the traditional Japanese style of cooking. She turned the reins over to her brother when she moved downtown in 2004 to open Mama Kim's with her youngest son James. Instead of replicating Kim's Korean, they kept it simple with a casual, counter-style setup and traditional Korean dishes and sushi. The old Kim's Korean closed earlier this year, while Mama Kim's moved into bigger and better digs.
Originally located on Calhoun Street in the ghost town between King and Meeting, the restaurant is now in the middle of the college action on King between Calhoun and George. Her customers have followed her, and she's been accumulating new ones ever since, perhaps helped along by her cheeky slogan: "Rock Out with Your Wok Out."
Despite her age, Mama is still working 14-15 hour days, though now she comes in later in the morning because another family member can handle the opening tasks. It can be rough starting out the day, she says, "[But] after I see people, I feel better. I move around. It's medicine, you know?"
Mama greets her customers, old and new, with a hug. She'll take your picture, tell you when a certain menu item may not be the healthiest choice for you, or ask if you like your job. And she has an uncanny knack for spotting the one person in a group who isn't eating because they can't afford it. "I enjoy the people eating," she says. "I'll ask why they don't eat? Something wrong? I'm always going to make sure." Once, she brought over a chicken bowl to a hungry customer, and all she asked for in return is that he pray for her and her good health. He did, right then.
In fact, Mama would give everything away if her sons weren't there to keep an eye on her. "They say, Mama when you're going to make money?" she says. "I say, I'm going to make the money to pay the bills, but that's my hospitality."
James promises that Mama will shoot herself in the foot to make things right, even if it's not fiscally responsible. "She's going to do it," he says. "Her morals are her morals."
But she's not going to be taken advantage of — she's a 400-pound gorilla, according to James, and you shouldn't get in her way. "She's a fighter," he says. "I joke with her, if she was born in America, immediately spoke the language ... she'd be kicking Hillary Clinton's ass right now. She would take over."
Mama wants everyone to experience her food, and she doesn't want anyone to be limited by their financial status or their background. That means the restaurant will eat the costs of things like cups and bowls in order to keep prices low for the college kids. "Poor, rich, everybody going to come in here," she says. "I want to be able to have people come in here and see me."
Mama Kim's is a family business in every way. Whenever something breaks, Mama's husband comes in and fixes it. James co-owns the restaurant, but he returned to school in recent years, so his older brother Robert, a former youth pastor, has taken over the day-to-day. And most of the rest of the staff is made up of relatives including her sister (the family calls her "Frank's mama"), her sister-in-law Young-Mi, and her grandkids. And the ones who aren't biologically her family are still her family, and they still call her Mama. That's the culture of this restaurant. Once you step inside, you're part of it.
"Like church, everybody come in, all different," she says. "I don't want to be a high class, low class. Everybody is welcome. If they want a side of kimchi, I give them a side of kimchi. Everybody come try."
Sunday is time for Mama and her (real) family to go to services at the International Church of God in West Ashley, or for her to get a little bit of rest and recharge. But it's only because her family makes her take a break. She would never do it herself. "If she's not there, it's because somebody made her not be there for some reason," James says. Even if there's enough family to cover a rare absence, even when one of her two sons is at the helm, she'll still come in on her days off.
It would be hard to imagine her ever retiring, but Mama already has hopes for what that kind of self-indulgent future may hold. "My minister and my friends always say they think I'm never going to retire, but I'd like to retire some day," she says. "I'd like to go travel."
She's been to Yellowstone and Niagara Falls, and she loves geology and geography and getting to know different cultures. James thinks that at most, Mama will cut back one day, but only when she's no longer capable of handling the daily grind. Then she'll probably turn the business over to one of the younger members of the family, someone who is already trained for the task.
Until then, Mama likes a challenge. She got one with this restaurant, and she'll do it for as long as she can. The fundamentals of the business have gotten easier over her 25 years, but the competition keeps Mama on her toes. And she always puts her best foot forward, because she knows the minute she slacks off, there goes her reputation. "I don't care how old they are, if they want to be a success, you've got to be there," she says. "Nine years, no day off except when I'm sick."
Her own mother is still alert at 96, so Mama's got plenty of years, and plenty of chicken bowls, ahead of her.
As James Brown, Mama Kim's flesh-and-blood son, explains, you're not going to get ultra traditional Chinese food at one of downtown Charleston's takeout joints. And while Charleston's ethnic culinary scene has certainly expanded in the last couple of years with banh mi shops and ramen joints, Mama Kim's has acted as an authentic outlet for Korean comfort food for years. At Kim Brown's King Street restaurant, you can definitely get the real Korean deal on the nights when you're feeling more adventurous than a chicken bowl.
The thing that sets Korean food apart from other Asian cuisine is its spiciness. Chili pepper is a central ingredient in Korean cooking, and the redder your spicy pork bul-go-gee, the hotter it will be for your tastebuds. Luckily, there will be a selection of small but colorful side dishes next to you to cool you down. There's also a lot of pickling involved, like in everyone's favorite accoutrement, kimchi.
As Mama Kim herself instructs, come to her restaurant with a bunch of friends, order a bunch of these different Korean dishes, and pass them around. Better yet, get Mama's Family Dinner for two. Those are her exact instructions.
Our guide features some, but not all, of the traditional dishes served at Mama Kim's.
Bul-Go-Gee. A meat-centric dish, Mama offers beef, chicken, or spicy pork. The protein is marinated and grilled and served with rice and Korean veggie sides.
Bee-Bim-Bop. Korean for mixed rice, this dish of white rice is typically topped with sauteed veggies and a spicy sauce, plus the bul-go-gee meat and a fried egg. Or, try the dol-bee-bim-bop, which gets the rice sizzling in a smoking hot stone bowl.
Jab-Chea. Clear, stir-fried noodles are cooked with veggies and, in Mama's case, thin slices of beef. Traditionally, it's served as a side dish, but at Mama Kim's you can get it as an entrée.
Jayuk Bokkam. A hot-and-spicy stir-fried pork dish. Tofu or rice cakes can be added.
Don-ka-sa. Pork is thinly sliced, fried, and served in Mama Kim's special sauce.
Gimbap. The sushi menu at Mama Kim's is pretty standard — you can order spicy tuna and spider rolls, and even a Charleston roll. But Gimbap ("seaweed rice") is practically the same thing. Leftover from Japan's cultural influence in the early 20th century (Japan occupied Korea from 1910-1945), it wraps up rice and fillings in seaweed, but you're more likely to find the pickled and roasted meats and veggies of Korean cuisine among the more traditional raw offerings. Try Sushi Kim Bob, the Mama Kim's version of a California roll.
Du-bu. Tofu. On Mama Kim's dinner menu, you'll find it served firm in a hot and spicy sauce (du-bu-mu-chim) or stir-fried with veggies (du-bu-bokkum).
Du-Gook. Egg broth soup. A couple of variations are available at Mama Kim's, including man-du-gook (served with Korean dumplings), dok-gook (prepared with Korean rice cake), and dok-man-du-gook (with rice cake and Korean dumplings).
Jjgae. Hot and spicy soup reminiscent of a stew. Try du-bu-jjgae (with firm tofu and veggies), soon-du-bu-jjgae (with shrimp, scallops, veggies, and soft tofu), kimchi-jjgae, or doenjang-jjgae (Korean-style miso).
Kimchi. Let's face it: Kimchi is everywhere these days, including many places that serve far-from-authentic Korean food, and it's not that hard to make a batch yourself at home. That's because these spicy, crunchy fermented vegetables (usually cabbage and/or radish) add a lively crunch to sandwiches, fried rice, and, of course, authentic Korean cuisine. It might be a little stinky sometimes, but it's worth it.