Minnesotans relocating to Southern California is the well-worn script.
But Los Angeles transplants Thomas and Kat Kim are following a different dialogue. Two years ago, drawn to Minneapolis by the encouraging start-up environment at the Midtown Global Market, the couple launched the Left Handed Cook.
It was an instant hit. So much so that MGM management offered to transition the counter-service operation into an honest-to-goodness bar and restaurant, a win-win for both parties, as it coincided with the Kims’ initial vision while filling some long-shuttered real estate.
One successful Kickstarter campaign and a whole lot of elbow grease later, the Kims — he cooks, she handles everything else — rebranded their business as the Rabbit Hole and opened the doors late last year.
Those with a hankering for dietary excess certainly have come to the right place — starting with Thomas Kim’s spin on fried rice. It’s stickier than a more traditional strip-mall version, and far more nuanced. Spicier, too. The rice is fried in bacon fat, then more smoky bacon is added (which explains why Kim refers to bacon as his “Kryptonite”), its richness countered by sour, long-fermented kimchi and sweet onions. Like the over-the-top poutine, it’s crazy good, in a loosen-your-belt-buckle kind of way.
That wildly appealing sweet/sour balancing act is everywhere. Baby carrots, roasted until they retain the slightest snap, are glazed with funky fermented soybeans and maple syrup. Or green beans, crispy and charred, are topped with softly sweet caramelized onions and a tangy, garlic-infused black bean sauce.
While roasted, lemon-tickled Brussels sprouts are equally addictive minus the signature dish’s usual bacon flourishes, it’s clear that Kim is in his element when animal proteins are front and center.
He’s something of a burger savant. Of course, Kim’s inclination is to steer the patties as far away from lean as possible, fortifying a flavorful grind of brisket, eye round and chuck with short-rib fat. The golden buns — imports from Patisserie 46 — are similarly first-rate, lightly toasted and reveling in a soft, milky delicacy.
From there, Kim expertly piles on the add-ons, playing with flavor and texture. Purists will appreciate the California-style Cheddar cheeseburger and its pile of crunchy, vinegary pickles. My appetite leans toward the double-cheese version (a salty blue, a melty Gruyère), with kimchi-fired aioli, a fried egg and peppery, palate-cleansing arugula, although it’s hard to argue with the variation that calls upon a swipe of feisty chile relish, spicy coleslaw and a crown of gossamer onion rings. All are almost indecently delicious. Unfortunately, they’re not served at lunch.
A transformative approach to all-American fare isn’t limited to burgers. Instead of frying green tomatoes, Kim pickles them, with pleasing results. The potato salad is tops in its class. Gochugaru, a dried and ground red chile pepper powder and a Korean cooking staple, is slipped into that 1980s stalwart, the flourless chocolate cake, giving the back end of each dense bite a slow-burn nudge.
But his triumph is a dazzling approach to fried chicken. Two approaches, actually.
Both get the same lively 21-spice salute. But where boneless strips are treated tempura style, bone-in cuts are marinated (in cilantro and fish sauce) and dried in the manner of Peking duck, then battered in a gluten-free potato starch/rice flour combo before hitting the hot soybean oil. Both versions boast gloriously juicy meat and absurdly crispy skin, with each bearing different grades of crispiness. Kim has obviously struck the fried chicken Holy Grail.
The good-old days, continued
Fans of the couple’s former setup who find themselves dining at the Rabbit Hole in the evening might lament the loss of the Left Handed Cook and its spirited, accessible fare. I know. I was one of them.
Rather than wallowing in disappointment, I’ve decided to become a noon regular, because the Left Handed Cook lives, at least during lunch. A facsimile of it, anyway.
The counter-service setup is history, but many of the favorite dishes remain, including the sublime soft-shell-crab sandwiches, the fabulous kimchi-boosted rice bowls (get the one topped with fried chicken strips, or the hearty beef bulgogi), each one topped with an ethereally poached egg.
Oh, and the doshi trays, a school-lunch-style meal served on the shiny metal trays used in Korean army mess halls. One features those incredible fried chicken strips; another stars the slow-braised pork that Kim does so well, pungently glazed with a fermented red chile sauce. Saving the best for last is a toss of fresh vegetables and slightly gummy sweet-potato vermicelli, the dish’s clean flavors subtly enhanced by splashes of sesame and soy sauces.
That dense chocolate cake is a fine dessert choice, although it’s wildly overshadowed by what turns out to be an homage to one of Kim’s earliest childhood food memories, the sweet red bean-filled pancakes that he encountered when his family briefly lived in Korea. Kim’s puffed-up version, its density lightened with yeast, is doused with a luscious dulce de leche and crunchy sliced almonds. I want one, right now.
My first impression wasn’t wildly enthusiastic. Maybe it’s because we were crammed into an awkwardly proportioned booth, or perhaps because we were slogging our way through a meal dominated by unrelentingly heavy dishes.
While the furniture continues to emphasize style over comfort, recent course corrections have addressed the latter complaint. The menu’s half-dozen larger plates, which seemed to collapse under the weight of their ambitions, also have improved, complementing rather than clashing with the restaurant’s hipster dive-bar aspirations.
No, the Rabbit Hole name isn’t an “Alice in Wonderland” reference; it’s a whimsical commentary on the moody, let’s-get-lost setting. The dark, inward-looking retreat is as atmospheric as the bar’s Dark & Stormy cocktail, in a way that’s particularly suitable during our endless winters. Summers? Maybe not.
The Kims married, had a baby (say hello to daughter Kyu) and opened the restaurant in the space of two weeks last autumn, and the hard-working couple are clearly the poster children for the business-incubator ideal that is Midtown Global Market. Or, what the MGM could be, if more culinary talents in the mode of Thomas and Kat Kim can be coaxed into the premises.
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