Food & Drink

You Gotta Try This: Time and care in a fast-casual Korean/Hawaiian grillhouse

This is “You Gotta Try This,” The Bee’s series featuring one particular must-have dish at a local restaurant. Each featured dish is nominated by a reader. Got a menu item you want to shine some light on? Comment below or email reporter Benjy Egel at begel@sacbee.com.

The $10 tofu stir-fry isn’t the wildest plate lunch on Kuji Asian Grill’s menu.

Its core is relatively simple and easy to replicate at home: seared tofu sauteed with chopped zucchini, carrots, mushrooms, onions and bell peppers before being covered in dried chili flakes, garlic and kalbi sauce. Other dishes such as bulgogi japchae or bibimkooksoo are probably less familiar to most customers at Woodland’s lone Korean restaurant, a 2-month-old, 1,200-square foot converted Starbucks in a shopping center.

It’s the last ingredient that makes Kuji stand out from other area fast-casual grills, though, along with the general ethos behind its plate lunch model. Also used to marinate nearly all of Kuji’s meats, the kalbi is a complex blend of sweet soy glaze, garlic, onions, pears and apples. It’s made from scratch just like every other sauce Kuji serves, using skills chefs/owners Kai and Suji Jung learned in their respective culinary schools years ago.

“Myself and my wife and our sous chef Kae (Saecho), we all come from fine dining backgrounds, so we’re not just going to make something that’s just spicy or salty or sweet,” Kai said. “It’s really important that there’s a good balance to everything.”

The term “plate lunch” is Hawaiian, though it’s essentially the same concept as a Southern meat-and-three. Each plate lunch comes with the main dish as well as three small sides – in Kuji’s case, that’s kimchi, pickled cucumber and onion slices and potato macaroni salad thickened with housemade mayonnaise.

Kuji’s weekly kimchi production starts with salting 100 pounds of cabbage overnight to extract moisture, then washing it the next day and letting it air-dry. It’s then hand-rubbed inside and out with a mixture of garlic, pear, daikon, scallions, salted shrimp, fish sauce, hot dashi stock and a pepper powder called gochugaru before being left to ferment for three weeks at room temperature.

It’s a more intensive process than the quick-pickled cucumbers and onions, which ferment in a heated mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, dashi and sugar for just a couple hours. Kuji also just started making its own Sriracha-like hot sauce from Fresno chili peppers, Korean chili peppers, garlic, ginger, vinegar, sugar and salt.

Whipping together sauces and running a small-scale pickling operation might seem like excessive time commitments for a family-run restaurant But for the Jungs’ first restaurant, they wanted to do as much in-house as possible.

“We just feel like it’s really important to not cut corners, and by doing things the hard way, you get a better product at the end of the day,” Kai said.

Though prices hover in the $10 to $15 range and portions tend to be on the smaller end, Kuji has 4.5 stars on Yelp after 55 reviews and 11 perfect Google reviews after two months in business. A weekday lunch visit saw a mix of young families, electrical workers and students from Pioneer High School across the street eating in the 20-person dining room and small outdoor patio.

Kai was adopted from South Korea at 3 months old and grew up in Davis before attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, while Suji remained in Korea through culinary school in Busan, the country’s second-largest city. They met nearly 12 years ago while working at Hilton Waikoloa Village on Hawaii’s Big Island, cooking everything from quick-service burgers to sushi between the 1,200-room resort’s eight restaurants.

The Jungs moved to Davis in January 2017 after Kai’s mother became ill, and Kai took a job at a sushi bar in town while Suji worked at the Doubletree in Arden. Both moved their careers into downtown Sacramento hotels last year – Suji to Dawson’s Steakhouse in the Hyatt Regency, Kai to Grange in The Citizen – while Kuji was being built out.

They had hoped to open a restaurant of their own in downtown Davis, but the area’s skyrocketing commercial rent costs nixed that idea. Woodland was cheaper, though, and full of new housing developments such as Spring Lake, where the Jungs recently bought a home.

And Kuji’s only a 10-minute drive from North Davis, where Kai’s dad still lives. Close enough that he can – and does – stop in nearly every day for a bite.

If you go

Kuji Asian Grill

1801 Gibson Rd., Suite A

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. on Sundays.

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.
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