Jae Kim fell in love with the food industry after he got out of the coffee-shop business, where he felt more like an employee than an employer. However, when he used up all his savings to launch Chi’Lantro, originally a food truck serving a mashup of Korean and Mexican cuisine, he was determined to make his second stab at the industry a success. Today, there are five restaurants, two food trucks, and two trailers under the Chi’Lantro brand in Austin, Texas—with more to come in the city in 2019, Kim says. QSR talked to him about his menu, how Korean ingredients and flavors play a part, and his hopes for the future of Korean cuisine in the U.S.
What sparked the idea for Chi’Lantro?
I’m Korean, so I ate Korean food growing up. In Texas, Tex-Mex, Mexican food, and just the Hispanic culture is huge here. I wanted to incorporate the food that I knew with what people liked here.
How are you accomplishing this mission on your menu?
Our take on our cuisine is combining authenticity with creativity. It’s authentic by the Korean ingredients that we use. When it comes to kimchi, we wanted to make it as authentic as possible. We try to produce our kimchi in a way that even people coming from Korea say, “Yes, this is very relatable.”
The creativity aspect is understanding our customers and giving them what they like. Being in Texas, we introduced queso in our own way: infused with Korean peppers. It’s relatable, yet creative.
What are some of your most popular menu items?
Our rice bowls and our fries are our most popular.
We are the original maker of kimchi fries, but I came about making them by accident. On the truck, we couldn’t move kimchi as a product because people were unfamiliar with it. I wanted to make it much friendlier, so I caramelized the kimchi and put it on top of fries. It was great late-night food for our food-truck customers. That became our No. 1 item. Now we’re serving about 100,000 pounds of fries a year. That’s a lot of fries and kimchi.
We also wanted to be the brand that could connect with our customers regularly, which meant we needed to offer healthier food, too. When we went to a restaurant, I made the difficult but cautious decision to make sure that we introduce something that people can come to eat every day. We started offering healthier options that people could relate to and connect with. Our noodle, rice, and salad bowls are the next top items, incorporating Korean barbecue with veggies that people are familiar with.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to incorporate in dishes at Chi’Lantro?
Gochujang has been something that we have introduced through our meat as a sauce. I think there’s so much more opportunity there. There are items I make with gochujang at home that I’m not able to do at the restaurant yet, like in soups. I made a tortilla soup recently and added gochujang. It just added a real depth of flavor and spice. I’d love to see that more. Gochujang and lime go really well together, gives it that kick. I think gochujang could do that for a lot of cuisines.
I’d love to see a play on kimchi a lot more also. We have this Kimchi Sauce, which is an emulsion of kimchi and a few other ingredients. It’s really popular for us. I’ve seen other upscale restaurants do this, and I love seeing that. We caramelize the kimchi, which creates a smoky, spicy flavor. We add vinegar, sugar, and lime, so there’s acidity and sweetness, too. It’s an expensive flavor, not a cheap, one-note flavor.
Where do you see Korean cuisine and flavors trending in the future?
I’ve been seeing so much activity with Korean food. As a Korean, I’m pretty proud of that. I think the cuisine still has a lot of room to grow. Chinese food, for example, is so much a part of people’s diet. I believe that Korean cuisine can do that, too.
As a Korean-inspired brand, it’s really cool to see that we still have a lot of first-timers that are being introduced to ingredients like kimchi.
People also see the value in health with Korean cuisine. Diet trends today can all apply to Korean cuisine, especially with our build-your-own concept. If you’re on a certain diet at Chi’Lantro, you’re able to find the things that you’re wanting.