When sisters Heather Chung and Unmi Kim opened their restaurant, it didn’t have a sign. “People would stop in and wonder what it was,” recalls Chung. Initially, the tiny space on the corner of 24th and Charles Street offered food for free. “We wanted people to discover us, and figure out what they liked,” says Chung. Soon enough, early customers spread the word, and more folks began to discover Brown Rice.
The restaurant offers traditional Korean food, like bibimbap (“bibim means mixed,” Chung points out, while “bap” is the word for rice), kimchi and mandu (Korean dumplings), served assembly-line style. Prices range from $6.75 to $16.95 depending on the size and contents of the bowl. And while the Chipotle-style service means most dishes are packed for carryout, Brown Rice also offers a more traditional hot stone bowl—at $16—the most expensive menu item.
Low prices are not only part of the business model, but part of Chung’s philosophy. “I don’t need to sell a lot of food. I just need to sell the right amount of food,” she says. And the food she sells, she says, comes with a smile.
She recalls a beloved restaurant that served American-style pancakes. “I loved those pancakes,” she says. But the restaurant hired a new cook, who, Chung says, “wasn’t happy at all,” so Chung stopped going to the place. “I don’t want to eat that pancake anymore,” she says. This, Chung insists, “is part of Oriental culture. I care about how the food is made.” And that means more than just the ingredients. Her family, she says, “grew much of our own food. Growing and cooking food was a happy experience.”
Chung, Kim and their five siblings were raised on a farm in a rural area south of Seoul, South Korea, by a single mother. Chung came to the United States in 1998 to visit a cousin, and ended up getting married here. She worked in restaurants and studied English at community college. After divorcing, she moved to Baltimore to help a friend run a Korean karaoke bar on Howard Street. She eventually bought a liquor store on Greenmount Ave. “I wasn’t happy when I owned the liquor store,” Chung admits. Part of it was what she sees as an integral part of American culture. “People seem to work, work, work, money, money, money,” she says. “Finally, I said, ‘enough is enough.’”
She and Unmi, who came to the U.S. from South Korea about eight years ago, decided to open a fast casual restaurant focused on the foods of their homeland.
Bibimbap, the signature dish, comes in three sizes with three choices of rice (white, brown, and multigrain). Protein choices include beef bulgogi (marinated sweet beef), spicy chicken and pork, tofu and panko-crusted shrimp. From there, you can select from 25 different vegetables and pickles. These add-ons feature five types of kimchi, from mild to spicy, pickled just right to retain the crunch of the vegetables.
The menu also offers anju—Korean snacks—like the seafood scallion pancake haemul pajeon. Make sure you ask for it well-cooked so that the edges are crispy. For spice-lovers—the dbuckocki—commonly enjoyed as street food in Korea is sliced rice cakes simmered in a red pepper sauce with a sweet undertone to balance the heat. East meets West at Brown Rice in the burgers that feature such Korean ingredients as bulgogi, and a spicy chicken and pork burger seasoned with Korean spices. While Brown Rice has no liquor license, it does have a BYO policy.
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it space, with its eight tables and long counter for ordering, sits midway between Station North and Charles Village. Brown Rice attracts a youngish clientele, says Chung. Artists, students from Johns Hopkins and MICA, and employees from nearby small businesses fill the place at lunch time. Some people will walk in, she says and walk right out again. “They don’t like it because we don’t have fries.” But if newcomers stay long enough, she’s happy to offer a sample. “I’m so happy when people walk in and try something new. I really love to educate them.”
Chung and Kim are currently expanding their catering and delivery services with plans to open another restaurant in August 2016. —2404 North Charles St., gobrownrice.com