For 30 years, college students and residents from around the corner as well as visitors from around the world have enjoyed the delectably spicy taste of authentic Korean food at Mama Kim’s, a downtown Charleston eatery that also has been known to serve up portions of lessons in life.
Kim O. Brown, affectionately known as Mama Kim, offers more than sustenance to the diners who flock to her restaurant on King Street. She’s also somewhat of a surrogate parent to the College of Charleston and Citadel students who drop by for Korean food, Japanese dishes and sushi.
“I love them but I’m strict,” says Kim, who came to the United States in 1971 and owned a beauty shop before getting into the restaurant business. “I try to show them how to do things correctly. I’m a mama to all college kids when their mama’s not here. We treat everyone who comes in like family.”
Mama Kim’s was born in 1987, when Kim and her brother, known as Crazy Kim, opened a restaurant on Old Towne Road in West Ashley. Three of their sisters came from California to help them launch Kim’s Korean & Japanese Steakhouse, the first Korean eatery in the Charleston area.
“It was hard because people didn’t know much about Korean food,” Kim says.
It did, however, provide employment for many of her relatives. Several family members in three generations still work at the restaurant, including Crazy Kim and his wife, Chung, and Mama’s grandchildren, Kim and Branden. Mama opened up shop on the peninsula in 2004, on Calhoun Street, and moved to her current location on King six years ago.
Mama points out the differences between Korean cuisine and Japanese fare. Japanese food has somewhat of a sweet taste to it while Korean food is spicier with a heavy presence of vegetables, such as kimchi (fermented cabbage), radishes, bean sprouts, spinach, cucumbers and black beans. Korean side dishes, in most cases, are also served cold.
How much – or little – did Charlestonians know about Korean food in the restaurant’s early days? Mama remembers a newspaper review that noted that the sides “could have been a little warmer.”
Among the most popular dishes on Mama Kim’s menu are Bul-Go-Gee – thinly sliced beef in a soy marinade; Bul-Kal-Bi – beef ribs marinated in Mama’s secret sauce; and Bi-Bim-Bob – steamed rice, mixed vegetables and chicken, pork or beef topped with a fried egg. Mama says Tukbokki, a spicy rice cake dish that is served hot, is one of her most popular appetizers.
How popular has Kim’s been over the years among locals and visitors? The walls are covered with thousands of photos of people who have eaten at the restaurant, including U.S. Rep. and former Gov. Mark Sanford, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and actor Bill Murray. According to Kim – the granddaughter – there are thousands more photos but no place to hang them.
Mama Kim, now 65, still works seven days a week, though she admits she has cut back her workload just a bit. She isn’t, however, contemplating retirement just yet, simply because she loves what she’s doing: “I have to work every day. People come to see me. Sometimes they’ll come in and, if I’m not here, they leave.”
To get a taste of Mama Kim’s food and her life advice for yourself, stop in for lunch or dinner at 349 King Street in Charleston.
"For the generations past and the ones to come, I want to take the time to thank everyone for supporting me and my venture to spread love and culture across the peninsula. It has been my pleasure to serve the community and grow my extended family." - Mama Kim