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Sizzling showman

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Sizzling showman

Hibachi master "Crazy" Kim is a local culinary legend at Ichiban in West Ashley.

It's nearly an hour after the time a pair of seats at Crazy Kim's hibachi grill was promised. The source of the delay is apparent: What was supposed to be a quick fried-rice-and-flaming-onion stack session for a small group has morphed into an apple sake-fueled bacchanal, with men swiping Kim's utensils and women snatching kisses. Kim's the ringleader, egging on his audience with slurred chants and a demonic staccato laugh.

A manager, intent on getting another round of guests fed, scurries back to the table, perhaps thinking his worried presence will remind the bon vivants of babysitters waiting at home. He knows Kim will ignore him. "Now he's beating a drum," he reports helplessly when he returns to the host stand.

Since 1985, when Young "Crazy" Kim took over Kim's Korean Restaurant and Japanese Steakhouse near the convergence of Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Old Towne Road in West Ashley, Kim has served as Charleston's unofficial entertainment director. He's sliced millions of mushrooms and poured pools-worth of white sauce for children celebrating birthdays, couples celebrating anniversaries and eaters who count on Kim to help them forget they don't have any real reason to celebrate.

"Before I got married, I used to come here two or three times a week," says Mike Reed, a former Citadel student who brought his wife and children from Nashville so Kim could cook for them. "Of course, one of the problems was you'd come in for a quick meal and it could turn into a five-hour drink fest."

Kim's legend has bloomed largely without sanction: The Post and Courier thrice reviewed Kim's, and every time bypassed its Japanese steakhouse tables for the Korean menu, which was deemed insufficiently authentic. Many diners who pride themselves on their grasp of the local food scene know nothing of the 57-year-old sake acolyte with a cleaver. Yet despite the lack of public recognition, Kim has created Charleston's most spontaneously joyful dining room, where food and drink are consumed with unapologetic abandon and fun always trumps technique.

Grilling on hot metal plates is an ancient practice, but the modern teppanyaki tradition dates back to 1945, when Shigeji Fujioka had the idea to grill steak, then an unusual meat in Japan, on teppans. Fujioka's concept didn't catch on with his countrymen, but U.S. service members liked the approachable menu of beef and rice. Although the chefs' performances gradually became more flamboyant, from the start, teppanyaki was "popular among dancers who had a taste for extravagance," according to the website of the restaurant chain Fujioka founded.

Nearly two decades later, Tokyo's Rocky Aoki moved to New York City, where he sold ice cream and cocktails garnished with little paper umbrellas. The novelty earned him enough money to open Benihana, the nation's first teppanyaki.

It's unknown how many Japanese steakhouses are now in business, but they've thrived in Southern suburbs and small towns. "West Ashley is pretty competitive," says Kim's boss, William Chan.

Kim's first Charleston restaurant was a pizzeria, but before immigrating from South Korea in 1981, he'd cooked on hibachi grills. Or maybe he hadn't. Kim knows countless Charlestonians by name: His two children are enrolled at the College of Charleston, and nearly every downtown trip he makes to see them turns into an impromptu receiving line. But he's reluctant to reveal much about himself: Asked where he was born, Kim says, "South Korea, OK, make it Japan, OK. No, you can't? OK." He's equally coy about the number of customers he considers regulars.

"How many people in Charleston? 300,000? Three million? Less? OK, OK, 90 percent of Charleston people are my customers. So half-million," he says merrily, already losing interest in the question. "So I lied, OK? I'm looking good!"

What's more impressive than the size of Kim's following is its diversity. Japanese steakhouses are among the few American sit-down restaurants where whites and blacks nightly dine side-by-side (to be served quasi-Japanese food by Koreans, Filipinos and Mexicans, natch.) Kim doesn't dodge race in his patter. "Who's your daddy?" he asks a kindergarten-age boy. The boy looks confused, so Kim squeals, "I'm your daddy! I'm your daddy!" shouting for a black couple across the room to look at his "son." They laugh and shake their heads, which has a better claim than Kim's frequent Gangnam-style dance on being the restaurant's signature move.

At other Japanese steakhouses, each grill table is an island. Eaters may cast jealous glances at nearby hibachi chefs who appear to flip shrimp with more gusto, but they might as well be dining in different zip codes. When Kim's on the floor, though, the eight teppanyakis add up to one wild party.

"Kim will include you," Reed says. "It doesn't matter which table you're sitting at."

Or, as fellow chef Gabriel Balagtas puts it, "The other chefs feel like we're just here for back-up."

It's important to note here that Kim isn't an especially adept hibachi chef: He has a much more extensive repertoire of two-dimensional rice shapes than the average teppanyaki pro - would you like a heart? A smiley face? - but he doesn't dazzle with his knife work. He can vault a small bowl from his spatula to his hat, but it usually takes a few tries, whether or not he's blindfolded. The goal of a trick involving an airborne scallion is still unclear. But Kim's technical skill is completely irrelevant. His loyal customers almost prefer when his stunts go awry.

James Beard award-winning chef Sean Brock is a longtime Kim fan; he recently sat at Kim's table with his brother, Josh.

"That night was one of the funniest nights dining I've had in a long time," he says. "My brother, Josh, thought for sure that Kim had burned his Duck Dynasty-style beard off with one of his crazy explosions. It frightened my brother so much that Kim was laughing so hard he could barely cook. Man, that was a good night."

When Chan in December opened Ichiban Steak House & Sushi Bar in the former Kim's, which closed two years ago, devastating Kim's customers and friends, he knew he wanted Kim on his staff.

"He's really loud, he does things that surprise you," Chan says. "But the main thing is people love to drink with him."

Sake is still a tiny sliver of the national booze consumption pie: The amount of sake drunk domestically each year works out to less than a thimbleful a person, and that doesn't account for how much Kim is probably skewing the statistics.

According to Chan, on a weekend night, Ichiban clears half a case of sake. Much of it's served by the pitcher to Kim's customers, who can't refuse his feverish enticements to drink with him.

"He can drink a lot," Balagtas says. "He's been drinking for three decades. Even if he drinks 20 shots at a table, he can cook the next table just the same. His specialty, I guess, is to do the bowl in the hat blindfolded and drunk. That's the triple threat, right there."

When Kim drinks, he sings. His sake song, which likely dates back to his earliest days at the grill, is "Na Na Hey Hey," except that instead of saying "goodbye," he roars: "Sake time!" Then he lifts one bent knee, ritually rolls the sake cup across his opposite cheek and shoots.

"I was a victim of the carafe and song way too many times," Brock admits.

The typical teppanyaki jokes tend toward the tame, such as rolling an egg across the grill (get it?). While there's no way of knowing if Kim had anything to do with the "dinner with another Navy couple here in South Carolina," chronicled in an anonymous blog post titled "Inappropriate Hibachi," his comedy becomes progressively raunchier with each shot.

"He will say really funny things that are not commonly said in the service industry," Balagtas says.

Balagtas refused to give any examples, but a few minutes later, Kim interrupted his cooking to flash the standard "time out" hand signal, adjusted to incorporate a vulgar gesture. "You see what I mean?" Balagtas whispered.

And yet Chan says he's rarely had to ask Kim to rein in his antics. Kim's energy is infinitely charming, even to diners who showed up seeking steaks, not, in Reed's words, "kind of a frat party atmosphere."

"People like it," Chan says. "I've seen it. Next time they come back, they say 'Mr. Kim, please.' "

Kim recently filmed Ichiban's first commercials, which will start airing next month on television and in movie theaters. They're likely to just enhance the cult of Kim.

"Sometimes, it's trouble actually," Chan says. "We get a lot of patrons requesting him and only him."

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.

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