I’ve lived in St. Louis for 17 years now, long enough to answer the high-school question with its equivalent in my hometown, to open my heart — occasionally — to the gooey charms of a Provel-topped pizza, to forget how to zipper-merge and to nod noncommittally whenever I hear the next starry-eyed vision for Laclede’s Landing.
Do I need to enumerate the reasons visiting the Landing’s cobblestoned entertainment district is such a pain? Those cobblestones, for one, are hell on your tires as you look for parking, which in turn is an exercise in fabulist cost-benefit analysis. Until the renovation of Gateway Arch National Park, accessing the Landing on foot was dire even by St. Louis’ Grand Theft Auto-level pedestrian unfriendliness.
Yet the appeal of these historic, riverfront blocks in a city mostly content to let the Mississippi meander by is obvious. Even now I’d happily undertake a journey to the Landing by car, foot, public transit or passing barge if compelling restaurants awaited me there. Gradually, over the past year, I’ve come to think at least one does.
Kimchi Guys opened in February 2019 inside the Cutlery Building at the Landing’s south end, where it meets the Eads Bridge. Owner Munsok So is well established on St. Louis’ dining scene, with high-profile locations of his sushi restaurant Drunken Fish in the Central West End, at Ballpark Village downtown and at Westport Plaza in Maryland Heights. (He also operates a Drunken Fish in Kansas City.)
So is also an old hand on the Landing. He bought the Cutlery Building in 2006, anticipating a development boom. The Great Recession scuttled any hope of that. Still, So opened a Drunken Fish in the building, and by the middle of last decade this had become a fixture among the Landing’s restaurants.
Then, on Aug. 12, 2015, the side of the Cutlery Building collapsed. Amazingly, no one was injured, but the Drunken Fish was forced to close. So decided to rebuild but also to replace the Drunken Fish with a new concept that might be a better fit for the Landing. He’d observed the rising popularity of fast-casual restaurants, and he wanted to offer something closer to the Korean food he’d grown up eating.
(So and his parents immigrated to the United States from Korea and in the 1980s.)
The heart of the Kimchi Guys menu is Korean-style fried chicken, a relatively recent culinary development in historical terms that, as So describes it, is now an essential Korean comfort food.
“It’s gotten so popular, if you go to Korea now, there’s a chicken shack on every corner,” So said. “It’s like Starbucks in Seattle.”
At Kimchi Guys, the chicken is dredged in a wet potato-starch batter and fried twice, first at a low temperature, then at a high temperature. The result is an exquisitely gnarled exterior that’s thick and crunchy but never heavy or sodden with grease.
In addition to choosing a fried-chicken combo (from $9.95 for three dark-meat pieces with one side to $23.95 for a full bird with two sides), you must choose one of four sauces. I’m obsessed with two of them. The Spicy Original sauce leavens the pungent chile heat of gochujang with a sticky sweetness.
Even better is the Korean Buffalo, an ingenious riff on Buffalo chicken with an even fiercer heat — gochujang, gochugaru and serrano chile — enriched with butter and shot through with the tang of Frank’s RedHot sauce.
From here, the Kimchi Guys menu expands into the Korean-Mexican fusion made famous by Los Angeles chef Roy Choi and well represented in St. Louis by Seoul Taco. If nothing in this selection of burritos, tacos and quesadillas rises to the level of the Korean fried chicken, the kitchen doesn’t slouch, either.
My, ahem, Korrito with spicy pork ($9.95) could have used an extra pop of flavor from both the pork and the kimchi fried rice. Compensating for this, though, were two kinds of sharp mayonnaise, a spicy kimchi and a more vegetal cilantro, as well as Chihuahua cheese, pico de gallo and Korean street corn.
Back to Korean cuisine: Kimchi Guys also delivers an impressive bibimbap ($11.95) for the fast-casual format, though it lacks the crispy rice crust that can develop in a traditional stone bowl. I ordered mine with bulgogi beef, but the perfectly cooked mushrooms and fried egg, with the OG sauce (gochujang-led again, but here not so much sweetened as softened by mirin and sugar), provided more than enough savory satisfaction.
(Kimchi Guys offers plant-based protein in a vegan section of its menu.)
And, yes, given the restaurant’s name, there’s kimchi. A little dish of white-radish kimchi accompanies your fried chicken. It’s mild by kimchi standards, but it makes for a pleasant, palate-cleansing contrast to the chicken.
If you’ve already made the effort to come down to the Landing, treat yourself: Order fried chicken with a side (waffle fries or the Korean street corn are the play here) and the white-radish kimchi — and order an additional side of the spicy, zippy Napa cabbage kimchi.
Kimchi Guys’ food takes well to the fast-casual format. The restaurant’s vibe, though, can be if not unfriendly then brusque. If I didn’t know this was the sole location of an independent restaurant, I might guess it was part of a multi-city chain.
So told me he’s optimistic about the Landing’s future. If I’m trying to unlearn anything from my 17 years so far in St. Louis, it’s a reflexive cynicism about progress. If the Landing does thrive, I suspect it will need restaurants and attractions as smartly conceived and executed as Kimchi Guys more than it will any one developer’s or civic leader’s sure-fire plan.
Where Kimchi Guys, 612 North Second Street • Two stars out of four • More info 314-766-4456; kimchiguys.com • Menu Korean fried chicken and Korean-Mexican fusion dishes • Hours 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily