The Daily Gamecock

Around the world: Columbia's international cuisine

Believe it or not, a world of food lies beyond the Chick-fil-A in Russell House or the Cook Out in Five Points. If French fries are the extent of your foreign culinary exposure, perhaps it's time to try something new.

Take a trip to any one of the area's international restaurants. Enjoy a break from American fast food because everybody deserves a vacation now and then, even if just for the taste buds. Don't worry — Chick-fil-A will be waiting for you when you get back.

929 Kitchen and Bar (Korea)

929 Kitchen and Bar, Columbia’s year-old Korean restaurant located in the Vista, offers a nontraditional take on Korean cuisine with a modern atmosphere. 

The outside of the restaurant includes simple details such as string lights that hang in a large front window and reveal the inside dining room. Once inside, customers have the option between the sleek, well-lit bar or the dining room of about 10 tables. This relatively smaller seating capacity creates a quieter dining experience. 

929 Kitchen and Bar's owner, Sean Kim, moved to Columbia from Korea to study finance at USC’s Darla Moore School of Business following an invitation from his brother who taught accounting at USC. 

“He called me one day, ‘Why don’t you just visit USC to see how the school is, how the American school system is?’" Kim said. "So, I came here in ’96. I loved it. I mean, it was totally different. That was the first time I came to the United States.” 

When asked why he went into the restaurant business, Kim said, “I had been trying to find what I like and food was always my thing. Even [when] I travel, I check the restaurants first before I go to cities."

In 2016, he went back to USC for its culinary program before opening his restaurant. 

Kim's behind-the-scenes involvement at the restaurant shows his passion for Korean food. Although he does not prepare the dishes himself, he put a lot of consideration into choosing a chef, sourcing ingredients and curating the menu. 

“I interviewed 52 chefs in New York who had Korean food experience and I found him from there. Since we opened, he has been with me,” Kim said.

The kitchen staff is about 78% Korean, while all the bartenders are American. Also, a handful of part-time employees are USC students. The two-week-long training is helpful for staff members who might not be familiar with Korean food, said Kim. 

"We're giving them every food we have, they taste it and I explain [to] them how to make it,” Kim said.

Kim said when creating the menu, he wanted to bring in some American influence so that there is something for everyone. The menu lists many traditional Korean dishes, like bibimbap, a rice dish topped with various fresh ingredients, and japchae, stir-fried sweet potato starch noodles with vegetables. He also included more familiar items with a twist like kimchi nachos and Korean spicy pork tacos.  

Kim’s vision for bringing Korean cuisine to America extends beyond 929 Kitchen and Bar. He has plans to open a casual Korea barbecue restaurant in Charlotte by March. 

La Estrella (Mexico)

La Estrella is what Guy Fieri would kindly call a dive, or a restaurant whose unassuming exterior is sharply contrasted by its cuisine. La Estrella is just that, and the tried and true quote still prevails: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

The restaurant shares a building with a grocery store, yet it has an identity all of its own. Dark wood booths, colorful banners hanging from the walls and Mexican decor characterize the joint. 

Oswaldo Ambriz, a waiter at the restaurant, describes working at La Estrella like working with a big family, as most of the people working there actually are related. Family and the Mexican culture are what make La Estrella truly special.

“We got two brothers, we've got in-laws and all the other people that have come to work for our family. We try to get as close as possible,” Ambriz said. “[It’s] very colorful, lots of culture. We’re very family-orientated. That’s something that I'd really like people to know. It’s family that runs it and family that serves everyone.” 

Ambriz said the restaurant wanted to encapsulate Mexican culture.

“With Cinco de Mayo, we’ll put up a lot of flags, things like that, and we’ll do some margaritas specials and stuff like that,” Ambriz said.

The restaurant decorates for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, too: "We’ll put different [flags] with people that have passed away of legends, icons of the Mexican culture."

La Estrella is no Moe’s or Chipotle. Rather, its menu is authentically Mexican, including different platters of seafood, meats and classics such as tacos and taco salads. It even incorporates street-style food that Ambriz said is hard to find at other places.

“We want to get the feeling of just, like, the culture, you know? Back in the day we didn’t have that many small places," Ambriz said. "I’m so glad it’s been up for this long."

Felix, Chance and Waverly Chong, who are all customers of La Estrella, said they each felt moved by the idea of family and authenticity at the restaurant. While Felix said it was the best Mexican he had in awhile, Waverly said it made her think of the food she ate in Mexico. For the Chongs, the difference was in authenticity.

“It feels more personal,” Chance said. 

Though a bit of a drive from campus to its Cayce location, the food and atmosphere at La Estrella make for a traditional experience unlike that of competing Mexican restaurants in the area. 

Villa Tronco (Italy)

For Columbia, the start of the pizza industry can be found in a brick building, adorned with an orangey-red entrance and painted with the giant words “Villa Tronco” and “Ristorante.” 

Near the center of downtown, this restaurant holds Columbia’s Italian food heritage. This place where one can still eat and find many traditional Italian dishes was the first Italian restaurant in Columbia and is the oldest restaurant in South Carolina.

Started in the early 1940s as Iodine Fruit Store, then Iodine Grill, then Tony’s Spaghetti House and now Villa Tronco. The founder of this establishment, Sadie Tronco is a first-generation Italian from Sicily. Known to her family and friends as Mama Tronco, she helped homesick World War II soldiers through her Italian home cooking, like meatballs and spaghetti.

As its demand reached a greater audience, she decided to open a restaurant to provide her culinary creations to the public. At a time when pizza was, for the most part, unheard of, she introduced it through her cooking. 

The pioneering Italian restaurant, now headed into its 80th year, is still owned by the same family who continues on the Tronco family traditions of pizza and Italian dishes.

In the early 1900s, Villa Tronco's building was a fire station with horse-drawn carriages in place of fire trucks, which one can still identify by the big green door in front. This portion of the building is now a booth seating area where one can sit during their meal and choose an Italian dish to accompany a drink from the restaurant's popular wine selection. Every Thursday, Villa Tronco holds live music from local musicians including opera, broadway and jazz. 

Some popular dishes include the chicken Villa Tronco, an Italian egg roll appetizer, the cheesecake and the pizza. Almost everything is made daily from scratch with similar recipes its founder used in the '40s. As a traditional Italian restaurant, it has commonly popular dishes like lasagna, ravioli, eggplant parmesan, pizzas and pastas, but it’s food made “from the heart and the soul,” said owner Carmella Roche. 

SakiTumi (Japan)

SakiTumi Grill and Sushi Bar serves fresh sushi and grilled menu items for a varied experience.

USC alumnus Dave Shaw has owned and operated the fusion restaurant for 13 years. Fusion means different cuisines are combined under one menu and, in SakiTumi's case, more Americanized sushi is paired with grilled items such as hibachi, seared salmon and burgers.

"We're one of the only restaurants in this entire city, actually, to bring in fresh fish for our sushi menu," Shaw said. "We get fresh tuna loins overnighted from Hawaii, usually about four times a week." 

Though most restaurants have bright pink tuna, SakiTumi's tuna is garnet-colored. The color is perfect for Gamecock fans, and also means that the tuna is fresh and has not been injected with CO2 and Cryovac sealed.

Not only is the fish fresh, but everything else is, too.

“There's nothing that we serve here that comes frozen out of a box. Everything we do here, we make fresh in the kitchen,” Shaw said. 

Being a fusion restaurant, Shaw believes there is something for everybody at SakiTumi. Even if one family member loves sushi and another hates it, both can find something on the menu that appeals to them, he said.

There's a certain confidence about SakiTumi. Salt and pepper shakers are not provided on tables and are only provided upon request. This is because, as Shaw said, "the food comes out of the kitchen already so well-flavored."

Earlier this year, SakiTumi introduced Sunday brunch to its offerings. This came after Café 116, a popular brunch location in Columbia, was sold and SakiTumi decided to collaborate with some of the former employees to make their own brunch.

Sunday brunch has its very own menu with many creative dishes. A s’mores stuffed French toast, sweet potato cinnamon pancakes, red pepper shrimp and grits and a bloody Mary cheese melt are some of the many menu items exclusive to brunch. However, SakiTumi does not serve sushi during Sunday brunch. 

SakiTumi is located in the Vista, but it's not in plain sight. It is "located in the back of a building and down an alleyway," Shaw said, but that does not keep it from being successful.

“There's no way we would have survived 13 years, through the Great Recession, being in the back of a building with hit-or-miss parking, if we didn’t have some amazing quality food,” Shaw said. “We’re hard to find but easy to love.