Tooling around Caldwell in late summer, I noticed that a new restaurant had seemingly sprung up overnight in a small row of stores on busy Bloomfield Avenue., owned by Leslie Newport and her family, offers traditional, slightly kicked-up-a-notch, delicious Korean cuisine.
Leslie’s stepfather, Pyung Ho Hwang, went to culinary school near Seoul; but interestingly, he went to culinary school to master western food because he already knew how to make Korean food. Leslie explained that food is such a big part of Korean culture that you learn from your family. When he got to the United States, he realized that everybody wanted him to make Korean food, not American food. He worked as head chef in various restaurants in Bergen County, while Newport’s mother, Seung Ae Hwang, is an entrepreneur who has owned other restaurants.
Newport grew up in Florida, where she worked in the hospitality industry and social media marketing. When her mom opened the original Kimchi Mama in Fair Lawn about three years ago, she asked Newport to join her.
The Start of Something Good
I asked how they chose Fair Lawn and Caldwell for their first two restaurants, as Korean food doesn’t seem to be incredibly well known in those areas. Newport said that was precisely why those communities work so well.
Their mission is to make Korean food accessible, easy, and less intimidating to people who have little or no experience with it. They designed the menu accordingly. Even though all of their recipes are traditional, everything is geared toward making the experience very user friendly. In the beginning, they needed to spend some time explaining the food, both to staff and customers: which sauce goes with which dish, and how you don’t dump the rice in because it will soak up all the broth.
One big misconception people have around Korean food is that it’s all spicy. It’s not. Everything can be customized because they make everything to order. This is not conveyer-belt food. They start the cooking process when the customer orders, and all the produce, protein, and other components are brought in fresh and whole and broken down on site. Newport’s stepfather makes all of the sauces and kimchi in Fair Lawn and it comes to the Caldwell location, fresh every day.
In Caldwell…and Beyond
They’ve had a great reception in the Caldwell location, which opened earlier this year. In addition to the food being downright delicious, people have become aware of the many health benefits of Korean food, such as kimchi (a traditional side dish of fermented vegetables), which has gained immense popularity in recent months. For instance, on many menus you’ll see kimchi hot dogs or kimchi fried rice. Korean food is at the forefront of Asian cuisine now so Kimchi Mama’s timing is spot on.
On my first visit for lunch, I fell in love with the miso soup. Unlike any other I’ve had in various Asian restaurants where it’s usually a thin, bland, watery consistency, this was thick and fragrant and absolutely addictive. More, please!
Another hit was the dumplings—both the vegetable and the beef fillings were delicious—tucked into a very light and crispy dough.
When we went back for dinner, we ordered the Korean dumpling soup (homemade beef bone marrow broth topped with more of those great veggie dumplings!), the spicy pork bibimbap, and a wonderful stir-fried chicken (bokkeum). Everything was terrific! Tip: if you go and plan on enjoying beer or wine with your meal, bring your own glasses. Kimchi Mama only has plastic cups.
Leslie and her parents want people to know that family is everything to them. They make their customers feel like they are dining in their home, and their employees go the extra mile to make everyone welcome.
In the future, they might offer tastings, or hands-on classes to teach people how to make kimchi. But for now, The Kimchi Mama team is laser focused on customer service, food quality, and spreading awareness about the deliciousness and health quality of their food.
Just as I was putting this article to bed, I got a note from Newport letting me know they’ve just opened their third location in Palisades Park, a full sit-down restaurant. Caldwell and Fair Lawn are set up more for takeout and delivery, with minimal seating. The Kimchi Mama empire is growing!
691 Bloomfield Avenue
Tuesday to Thursday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Sunday: 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.
7-09 Fair Lawn Avenue
Fair Lawn, NJ
Tuesday through Saturday: 11 a.m. to to 9:30 p.m.
Sunday: 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.
280 Broad Avenue
Palisades Park, NJ
Call for hours
Hours are subject to change.