Providence: Korean Truck Dishes Up Food and Culture

By Claire Gianotti |

Mama Kim’s Korean BBQ joined the fleet of food trucks that serve mobile cuisine to Providence locals and students this March, adding a variety of flavorful and healthy options. The truck primarily parks in front of Barus and Holley Building in the afternoon and in front of MacMillan Hall at night.

Hyun Kim ’01 and his mother Sook came to Providence from Seoul 22 years ago and brought with them a love of traditional Korean food and the desire to share it.

Sook remembers when her own mother would prepare huge dinners to feed her family, along with those hard hit in the aftermath of the Korean War. Many of the dishes offered by the truck are still prepared from her mother’s recipes, she said.

The recipes are traditional for higher-class Korean families — not typical street food, Sook said. Kim and his mother first got the idea to open a food truck during a trip to Los Angeles, where they saw “real moving kitchens” that were able to fit up to six or seven cooks. Kim said he was fascinated by how these trucks seemed to be “revolutionizing food culture.”

After some research, the Kims found a manufacturer of mobile kitchens and customized the interior to meet the needs of Korean cuisine. Nothing on their menu is fried, so they converted the fryer into a steam machine to keep dishes warm. The coffee urn stores stews, a customary part of Korean meals.

This is the Kims’ first venture into the Providence restaurant scene, and Kim said he hopes to “serve the best quality food to my clients.” The Kims emphasized the healthiness of Korean cuisine, which is reflected in their menu. Meat is marinated or pickled, and very little oil is used in the cooking process. The marinade is made from Korean pears grown in Shingo, avoiding the need for sugar. The Kims aim to “maintain both affordability and quality,” Sook said.

Produce is purchased from local farms using Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a local food system that links farmers and buyers. The truck appeals also to a vegan and vegetarian clientele. “Seventy percent of Korean food is vegan,” Sook said. Four of the nine dishes consistently offered by the truck are designated as vegan.

Meat-eaters are also welcome. Among the truck’s most popular dishes are the L.A. Short Ribs, named both for the city and for the lateral cut of the meat, a distinctly Korean style.

The Kims have enjoyed extraordinary success since they first opened March 18. They sold what they thought would be three days worth of food in one and a half hours on their first day. They have put in an order for a second truck and will sign a lease for an off-site commercial kitchen to prepare greater amounts of food. They have also been commissioned to cater events on and off College Hill.

Hyun, who concentrated in international relations and economics, has donated in recent years to the University’s Entrepreneurship Program. Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine, who taught Hyun as an undergraduate and took part in a food survey at the Kims’ home in early January, called Hyun an “example” for aspiring entrepreneurs and said he hopes he will “encourage other students to start businesses.” He is also a fan of the truck’s fare, saying it “doesn’t just taste like everyone else’s food.”

Joanna Lee ’11 and Allison Peck ’11, who are Korean, said they visit Mama Kim’s when they are nostalgic for the Iron Wok truck, which disappeared last year when its owners opened a restaurant on Brook Street.

Mama Kim’s does “a good job of replacing the Chinese truck,” said Diogo Alves ’11.

Attracted by the low prices and convenient location near the Sciences Library, Alves eats at the truck once a week.

But not everyone is thrilled with the new truck on the block. Two female students stopped to look at the menu but continued down Thayer Street after lamenting the absence of dumplings on the menu.

Mama Kim’s represents “a successful attempt to make an inaccessible Asian food accessible,” Peck said, decrying a “serious lack of Korean food around Providence.”

Soyeoh Ahn, a senior at the Rhode Island School of Design from Korea, says Mama Kim’s food is “pretty much the same as home.”

Kim, who served in Iraq in the South Korean Army, said he is eager to inject Providence with some cultural diversity. “You can disseminate culture in war,” he said. “But food is an excellent vehicle to promote cultural exchange.”