Left Handed Cook is all right
Herbert Hoover, M.C. Escher, Judy Garland, and The Simpsons' Ned Flanders. Could they be someone's dream team for a celebrity dinner party? A group of moderately difficult-to-execute Halloween costumes? Maybe, but one thing we know they have in common is their handedness: They're all lefties. Only about 10 percent of the world's population is left-handed (though that rate is almost double among U.S. presidents, which is weird and fascinating), but one of them is Thomas Kim, the executive chef and co-owner of the Left Handed Cook, a new stall at Midtown Global Market. Kim has extensive training in sushi-making and used to run a Hawaiian-influenced restaurant outside L.A. called the Standing Room. Now he is vying for lunch customers at MGM against some pretty stiff competition — Sonora Grill, La Loma, Salty Tart, and others — but Kim is already showing that his food is as uncommonly good as his handedness is statistically improbable.
Kim and his partner (both in business and in life), Kat Melgaard, say they aren't cooking with any agenda or consciously trying to diversify the market, they're just making the kind of food that comes naturally to them. For Kim, whose parents are first-generation Korean-American, what comes naturally is things like bacon dashi, hoisin barbecue pulled pork, and the liberal use of furikake, a condiment made predominantly of dried seaweed, sesame seeds, and dried fish. In short, he's making Asian soul food, and for the most part it's solid. They have the right number of menu options, divided into Shares (small plates that double as side-order options for the entrees), Bop Bowls (a mishmash of kimchi, veggies, and poached egg served over rice — very much like a ramen bowl without the ramen), Sammies (sandwiches, the way Rachael Ray refers to them), and Entrees (which should be self-explanatory, but it's worth mentioning that theirs come with rice, a side, and a small arugula salad). Everything is well portioned, and you get quite a bit of food for your money and a bonus of popcorn with wasabi peas and other soy-glazed crispy snacks while you wait.
Kim's technical ability is on display with the range of cooking methods he uses in his dishes. Some managed to impress (we'll call those the wows) more than others (the mehs). First up, the wows. Both sandwiches (sorry, I really detest calling them "sammies") fell into this category. The hoisin barbecue sandwich was a delight, with plenty of slightly plummy, tangy sauce on the pulled pork and crunchy cabbage slaw tucked into a glossy bun from Salty Tart. One or two notches up from that was the soft-shell crab sandwich. When crabs are in season, I am powerless in front of a soft-shell crab BLT, but they're always a little awkward to eat. You end up with a piece of leg sticking out the side of your mouth, looking like a surprised cat who has just caught a bug and can't quite hold on to it. The Left Handed Cook's version has thoughtfully given the crab a rough chop after deep frying, and layers on a sweet and hot Thai chile mayo and some caramelized onions. Served with a handful of golden, meaty French fries (or better yet, truffle fries with parmesan and furikake), both sandwiches were decadently messy and worthy of a repeat order.
The bop bowls, particularly the ma porc belle and the bok bok chicken, also went over very well, due to all the elements of flavor and texture they brought into play. These winsome bowls of mixed rice, meat, veggies, gochu sauce, and sesame were also some of the only dishes with serious spice, mostly courtesy of the kimchi. But that only underlined the fact that most dishes, while still well-seasoned, didn't pack much heat. The 21-spice fried chicken, for example, was impressively juicy inside the boneless breast meat, but it was really more herby than spicy. Sill, the batter was light and crisp, and I'll take that any day over too-thick breading that tries to distract from its crappiness with a spicy sauce.
On the Shares section of the menu, the best dish we had by a mile was the Brussels sprouts. Bright and sweet bits of orange and mint mingled with the salty, richer components of bacon, almonds, and Grana Padano cheese — all perfect with the bitter baby sprouts. The end result is like a complex cooked slaw that goes with everything. The charred asparagus was also a nice option, especially with the dimension added by the sesame leaves, an ingredient unique to Korean cooking. A word to the wise, though: Don't get this side dish to go. The poached egg does not travel well.
The mehs: Overall we found very few. We had the 48-hour braised short rib in more than one dish, and it was on the dry side each time, which made it extra hard to eat with plastic forks and knives. The collard greens fell flat in flavor, which was very unexpected given the umami-rich miso used during braising. But we had the distinct disadvantage of having eaten at Brasa the previous night, where we devoured the tasty collards with smoked chicken, and it was impossible not to make the comparison.
Walking into MGM can be overwhelming, especially for a first-timer. It's a cavalcade for the senses, with every cheerful color, every glottal stop of every language, and of course every imaginable exotic scent. It's hard to decide where to look first, but based on branding alone, these Left Handed newcomers stand out. The general feel of their storefront, with its big open kitchen for prime food-prep viewing, is hipster burlesque: all tattoos, bowler hats, suspenders, and specimens in jars, as if a traveling circus somehow broke down in L.A. and set up its sideshow for a few nights of fortune-telling and bowls of well-balanced Asian comfort food. There's a concrete pillar near the cash register that they've shellacked with repeated images of their logo and their slogan, "Sharp knives. Hard work. Good food." In the midst of all this is a picture of Ned Flanders wearing a shirt that reads "Lord Love a Lefty" and standing in front of his store that sold products designed for left-handers. Flanders's Leftorium may have captured a market niche, but Melgaard and Kim have come up with an even smarter business model. Their promising new kitchen should appeal to everyone: lefties, righties, and even the ambidexterous.
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