A dynamic duo keep Middleton’s K-Peppers kicking

Rachel and Eric Kim stay at the helm of the kitchen and in the front of the house.
Eric and Rachel Kim at K-peppers
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Rachel and Eric Kim stay at the helm of the kitchen and in the front of the house to keep K-Peppers kicking after 12 years.

When Eric Kim was a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the late 1990s, his friends would ask him to take them to Korean restaurants. Back then, the area had about two Korean restaurants —which have since closed or changed ownership — but Kim says they weren’t the best. He wanted to give his friends the Korean food experience they deserved. From that moment on, Kim had a mission.

“I was like, ‘OK, someday I’ll come back and I’ll open a nice Korean restaurant and just show Madison what real Korean food is,’ ” Kim says. He moved back to South Korea in 2002 to be with Rachel, the long-distance girlfriend who eventually became his wife. Eric and Rachel Kim married in 2004 and had a son a year later.

Rachel Kim worked in the food industry in Korea, and the couple studied under Kyung Hee Lee, a top cooking instructor in the country. Throughout this time, Eric Kim dreamed of opening a Korean restaurant in the Madison area. That goal materialized in 2008 when they moved to the United States with their 2-and-a-half-year-old and opened K-Peppers a year later in Middleton.

For the past 12 years, Rachel and Eric Kim have done everything to keep the restaurant afloat. “I’ve had many different jobs before, and this is the job that I really enjoy,” Eric Kim says. Rachel Kim is in the kitchen most days serving dishes based on her family’s recipes, while Eric Kim is often the one and only server, and he educates customers on the dishes. “When they’re impressed by the service or the food or anything, then not only [do]they just come back, but they actually bring someone else,” Eric Kim says.

The couple are best friends who do everything together. Eric Kim says people ask how they are able to work together, and he says it’s about balance. They typically close K-Peppers twice a year to take a break, but operating the restaurant is something they hope to do for years to come. “I’m happy that I came back and I’m happy that I brought my family here,” Eric Kim says.

Three Menu Items To Try

Beef Bulgogi Bibimbap

bibimbap topped with an egg

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

If you ask Eric Kim what K-Peppers is known for, the immediate answer is bibimbap. He’s eaten bibimbap more times than he can count, and he believes his wife makes one of the best in the state. Bibimbap is a rice dish with vegetables, meat, a sunny side up egg and homemade pepper paste. The most popular version is beef bulgogi — a marinated steak — followed by the Can’t Decide Which Bulgogi Bibimbap, which is a combination of beef and pork bulgogi.

Everything Japchae

Everything Japchae

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Another popular offering, japchae is a stir-fried noodle and vegetable dish that uses Korean glass noodles, a thin noodle made entirely of sweet potatoes. They don’t taste anything like sweet potatoes and they’re gluten-free. Four proteins are available — opt for everything japchae to try all the proteins at once: beef bulgogi, pork bulgogi, chicken and tofu.

Veggie Soft Tofu Jjigae

Veggie Soft Tofu Jjigae

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Before K-Peppers opened, vegetarian fare wasn’t at the forefront of the Kims’ minds when they were planning the menu. Most of the dishes had fish sauce, used a meat-based broth or included meat, but prior to opening, a friend pointed out to Eric Kim that they needed to have some vegetarian offerings. Eric Kim says having vegetarian and vegan options ended up being a great idea. A good vegetable-forward choice is the veggie soft tofu jjigae, a hearty dish with plenty of spice.

First-Timer Tip

Eric Kim is always in the dining room at K-Peppers, and he loves chatting with customers and explaining the history of Korean food and culture. Those coming in for the first time sometimes ask for explanations on dishes or how to eat them correctly. Kim encourages people to try dishes for the first time without substitutions. “If you want to try the real Korean food, in a real way, get your food as is,” Eric Kim says. Most of the ingredients have a purpose and will add flavors to accent the dish. Without some of those items, the flavor may not translate how it’s intended. There are even ways to eat dishes that may augment a person’s dining experience and amplify the taste. “Every dish was made with a lot of time and effort,” he says.

Find K-Peppers: 1901 Cayuga St., Middleton, 608-833-3189, k-peppers.com

Maija Inveiss is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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