The Red Sesame truck visited WCPO in September 2013, with ABC's Jimmy Kimmel picking up the tab. (Photo by Holly Edgell)
CINCINNATI - BJ Kim doesn't have any cooking background or culinary training, but says he has “extensive experience with eating.”
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CINCINNATI - This weekly column explores the international side of Greater Cincinnati dining. Follow WCPO contributor, Grace Yek, as she talks to the chefs and owners of these dining spots about their food, culture and journey to the Tri-State.
Where: All around Cincinnati Food: Punchy street food, fusing bold Korean flavors with Mexican staples Prices: Items range from $3 - $10
Burritos and quesadillas rule Byoung Joon “BJ” Kim's mobile street food joint, and they pack enough flavor to make your taste buds sit up straight.
Red Sesame's burrito is filled with sushi rice, a choice of meat, kimchi, romaine lettuce and cheese, all generously laced with a complex sauce. The sauce is delightfully savory, sweet and spicy all at once. The romaine lettuce is pre-dressed with a vinaigrette, adding to the explosion of flavors.
Red Sesame’s quesadilla is filled with cheese and choice of meat, and topped off with your pick of sauces. Vegetarians may choose to substitute meat with tofu.
If you are in the mood for a hot dog, Red Sesame has a kimchi version: made in-house with daikon (a type of radish), giving it a cleaner flavor and crunchier texture, compared to the more traditional cabbage.
Meet the owner
When Kim was pursuing a mechanical engineering degree in Japan, and later, a business degree at the University of Illinois, he was not thinking he would one day drive a food truck around Cincinnati, but that is exactly what happened.
“You never know how your life is going to turn out,” said Kim, who is originally from Seoul, South Korea. After earning his business degree, Kim returned to South Korea, where he and his partners started a machinery business. A dispute with the manufacturer cut short the life of the business.
Kim went on to work for a company in New York, and was eventually transferred to Ohio--West Chester, to be exact. He missed his friends, along with the caliber and diversity of foods New Yorkers enjoy.
“I felt lonely and talked a lot to my friends in New York,” Kim said. He wanted to go back but the reality of having to earn a living kept him here.
Then Kim started to look on the bright side.
“It’s cheaper to live here,” he said. The rent he used to pay in New Jersey was four times what he was paying here. “I also had to pay a lot for parking.”
It didn't take long for his business sense to kick in.
“I wanted to have my own business; something that I can do after I retire,” Kim said. One of Kim’s friends happened to be a food truck manager in New York.
“I started thinking, 'Why don’t I do this?'” Kim doesn't have any cooking background or culinary training, but says he has “extensive experience with eating.”
“I physically go to places that people say are good,” he said. Kim has even eaten at Roy Choi’s Kogi food truck in Los Angeles. Choi is a food truck hero to many, and was the first person to boldly combine Korean and Mexican flavors.
“His story inspires me,” Kim said. “I wouldn’t be here, or would at least have a steeper hill to climb, if not for him.”
Kim started Red Sesame in November 2012. There were days when he did not sell anything.
“When we first started, my friends and I had a difficult time getting people to try our food,” Kim said. His perseverance paid off when business picked up the following April.
“We would have repeat customers every day,” Kim said with a smile.
Kim described his food as “very fusion.”
“It’s Korean food with a Mexican twist,” Kim said. “We make everything fresh.”
He thinks the time for Korean food has come.
“It used to be when Koreans immigrated to the United States, they would open restaurants for fellow immigrants. They did not market the food to other people,” Kim reflected.
“My food is an easy way into Korean cuisine,” Kim said. “If I did authentic Korean food, I don’t think it would pick up as well.”
Kim learned to make kimchi in South Korea. Kim explained that the old school mindset of “the more fermented, the better” is losing steam with the younger generation there, who prefer something that smells cleaner.
“People rave about our sauces,” Kim added.
Red Sesame offers choices that range from mild to crazy spicy. Kim taps into staple Asian ingredients like miso, mirin, Sriracha and gochujang to build his sauces. He also procures cayenne pepper from Colonel De at Findlay Market to kick things up.
“People are usually timid about spiciness, but the younger people like it,” Kim noted.
By the way
Kim envisions having a brick-and-mortar restaurant one day, and hinted that it may happen sooner rather than later. He is currently in South Korea, and will be rolling his food truck on the streets of Cincinnati again the last week of February.
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Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek