April 2014 Issue: Chi’Lantro Food Truck Serves as Kimchi Ambassador in Texas

Photos courtesy of Chi’ Lantro

Banchan Mashup

Thanks to a late night experiment, Jae Kim’s fusion food truck, Chi’Lantro, has become Austin’s mobile gateway to kimchi.


Jae Kim happily considers himself an ambassador for kimchi in Texas.

When the owner of Chi’Lantro, a popular Korean and Mexican fusion food truck in Austin, first offered kimchi to his customers in 2011, he found very few takers. One fateful night, instead of filling the trash with the fermented side dish, he caramelized the kimchi to make it sweeter and threw it atop a pile of French fries. He added bulgogi and Monterey Jack cheese to the creation to form what would become Chi’Lantro’s signature dish, kimchi fries.

Kim, a Seoul native who grew up in Southern California and was inspired by the popularity of L.A.’s pioneering fusion trucks, also offers tacos, burritos, quesadillas and burgers with either meat or tofu on Chi’Lantro’s menu. It is the kimchi fries, however, that inspire his fans to follow every move of his now four trucks, two in Austin and two in Houston, via their website or social media.


Kim credits the sleepless nights feeding foodies at his first South by Southwest festival, four years ago, as ground zero for the culinary concept’s crispy, spicy rise to stardom. This year, Chi’Lantro expanded to six locations during the two-week music, film and interactive conference and festival in March, partnering with telecommunications giant AT&T and the colleague referral startup Roi Koi, to distribute free tacos at two of the locations. The promotion proved so popular, as free food notifications cluttered Twitter feeds by the minute, both companies extended the complimentary offer for the duration of the festival.

KoreAm spoke with Kim about how he turned his credit cards and savings into a food truck, and the fateful night pondering food waste that led to the wildly successful combination of kimchi and French fries, bridging two cultures of banchan.

What drew you to the food industry? 

Growing up, I developed a passion for the service industry. The trend was coffee. When Starbucks was coming up, and they started selling coffee for $4 and $5, it was unheard of. I figured there is a market for me in Orange County [in California] where I can sell it for a cheaper price while still providing gourmet coffee. I didn’t know that there is a lot more that goes into the business than that. That was my simple plan: “I am going to start a café and offer gourmet coffee at a cheaper price.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t successful. I worked every single day for three years.

It was tough and I failed. I didn’t have the vision for the business.  But, that was my entry into owning a business. I learned a great deal from that experience. I learned so much from failing. Looking back and thinking about my mistakes, I know I won’t make those mistakes again.

After your café, you consulted for a year at HEB, a Texas supermarket chain, then decided to buy a food truck. What prompted that?

I wanted to be an architect. My ultimate goal was to design my own restaurant. But, I didn’t have the money to start the restaurant. It just costs too much. It’s a half a million dollars to open a restaurant, and who has that in their mid-20s? With Chi’Lantro, I started it all by myself. I didn’t want to borrow money or anything like that. I took all of my credit cards and all of my savings and decided to go all in with it, knowing that if I fail, I will probably go back to my mom’s house. I might leave Texas if this doesn’t work out.


How did you come up with kimchi fries?

I had tacos, quesadillas and burgers on the menu originally. Kimchi can be very intimidating for Texans because they hadn’t really heard of it before. If they asked me what it was, I told them it was Korean-style pickled cabbage, which is a friendly way of saying it; instead of the more direct fermented cabbage. Customers would say, “No. I pass,” because they had heard of how it smells. So, I was throwing it out because it was getting too fermented. I wanted to offer fresh kimchi, so it could be the most edible for people who hadn’t had it before. It just became so expensive, the cost and the time to make it. We were also throwing out a lot of French fries, too, because people thought we were just a taco truck. So, one night, a staff member and I began playing around. We took the items that weren’t selling, and we literally put them together and started sampling that night. It’s funny because this whole thing blew up with SXSW, which is when people started talking about it.

We kind of became known for our kimchi fries because of an accident one night. It wasn’t intended. Now we put everything that we offer on the truck together on the fries. I guess it was the desperation to not throw it out anymore. We wanted to serve this food, instead of waste it. It kind of helped me to be an ambassador for kimchi. Now, people are trying it and they like it, and they want to try it on other items, which is really cool to see.

Aside from the kimchi fries, to what else would you attribute your success?

We have been successful because of our staff, their amazing attitude and the way that they treat our customers. People make or break the business. We have a great staff that supports the vision of Chi’Lantro. They really work as if it is their own. They have been one of the biggest factors in the success of our company.

This article was published in the April 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).