The lobby of the Idaho Athletic Club in Eagle looks like the entrance to any other gym: the lighting is fluorescent, the front desk is prominent, and the faint smells of sweat and chlorine fill the air. Visit at lunch time or during the dinner hour and you might get a whiff of something else: kimchi.
Off to the right in the gym lobby is what looks like a concessions stand, with a tiny kitchen fronted by a few round tables. It's actually a month-old restaurant—Kim's Taste of Korea—which offers everything from sushi and smoothies to a full menu of authentic Korean dishes. Busy behind the counter is the restaurant's creator and only employee, Stacy Yoo, a Korean woman in her mid-50s whose path to operating an eatery inside a gym in Eagle has been a winding one.
Yoo was born to a poor working family in South Korea in the 1960s. One of five children, she was told from a young age that dreams were a commodity they couldn't afford.
After she and her mother immigrated to the U.S. when Yoo was 20, she continued to put family and practicality first. It wasn't until recently that Yoo decided it was time to chase her secret dream: sharing the Korean food she loves with people who have never had the real thing.
"Many people say I'm good at cooking, but my husband didn't support me, my mom when I was 20 years old didn't support me," Yoo said, "It was just my dream. I didn't go to any culinary school, but when I taste something I know whether it's good or not."
Searching Craigslist from her home in San Antonio, Texas, she came across an ad for restaurant equipment and a kitchen for rent in Eagle.
After a quick flight to Idaho to inspect the space, Yoo packed her car and made the 25-hour drive from San Antonio to Eagle in three days—leaving her husband behind.
"I only have so much money so I had to have my own business where the rent is reasonable and there is a lot of traffic," Yoo said.
During her 35 years living in the U.S., Yoo worked all over the country as a cosmetologist, a seamstress, a grocery store sushi-roller and a dry-cleaner, but her heart never left the kitchen. Now, she puts her culinary instinct to use to produce an array of made-to-order Korean dishes for hungry patrons walking through the Idaho Athletic Club's front doors.
The menu at Kim's Taste of Korea
—adapted from the original name Kimbap's, after the Korean roll made with cooked beef rather than fish—includes such offerings as kimchi fried rice, pot stickers, kimbap (a "Korean sushi roll" made with cooked beef), sweet and spicy pork, sweet potato starch noodles with beef and seaweed salad all priced between $4.99 and $7.99.
With such affordable prices it's tempting to order a bit of everything, though it's hard to go wrong with the kimchi fried rice. Each bite is spicy but not searing, the pleasant heat of fermented cabbage complemented by an umami punch from melt-in-your-mouth cubes of Spam (a well-loved staple in Korean cooking). Adding even more textural interest, the rice is sauteed with broccoli and julienned vegetables, then topped with an egg sunny side up.
Like many of Yoo's dishes, which feature a traditional combination of meat and egg, the fried rice provides a serious dose of post-workout protein.
Each dish is made to order and some are time intensive, so Yoo recommends gym patrons place their orders before they exercise for pickup on their way out the door, leaving her about an hour to cook. Customers who aren't members of the gym are encouraged to call and order their meals in advance.
"This dish," said Yoo, pointing to a glistening pile of marinated beef and glass noodles, "Even Korean wives don't want to make this. You have to saute each item separate lots of time, lots of work."
The method is lengthy but rewarding. According to Yoo, preparing each ingredient separately ensures their individual flavors will shine through in the final dish. She's not wrong. The bell peppers crunch just enough to release a burst of mildly spicy juice, the noodles are sweet and al dente, and the tender slices of beef contain both the depth of soy sauce and the palate pleasing touch of sugar.
The food has been so well received that, on some days, it feels like the gym is beginning to turn into a restaurant. Staff members, who can often be seen ordering from Yoo's counter, don't seem to mind.
"I'm literally having sushi rolls and pot stickers every day," said Idaho Athletic Club General Manager Andy Heinz. "We've had a few other restaurants in the space, but I think this is probably the best response one has gotten. It's bringing in people who aren't even working out, just to eat."
So far, Kim's Taste of Korea has delivered exactly what Yoo was hoping for when she took the risk to pursue her dream. Running a restaurant all by herself for the past month hasn't been easy, but she has taken the complications in stride, laughing as she recalls times she's had to saute the ingredients for her kimchi fried rice with one hand while making a smoothie with the other.
"My family never appreciated my cooking," Yoo said, glowing, "I needed someone to appreciate it."