Kimberly Firnstahl’s grandson Matthew is waiting tables at her Snelling Avenue Korean institution Sole Cafe. He turns to Eddie Wu and asks, “When you worked here how often did you get yelled at?”
“All day every day,” says Wu.
Wu has received a lot of press for his Korean fusion cuisine at Cook St. Paul, a Payne Avenue diner that’s mostly American and a little Korean at the edges. As Wu sees it, a diner can be about short stacks with maple syrup as well as bibimbap with kimchi. He’s got us on board.
Meanwhile, Sole Cafe operates quietly on an unhip stretch of Snelling Avenue. It has existed here in one iteration or another for 20 years. Present-day Sole is a cozy, homestyle place where the food is the focus. It’s also Wu’s alma mater, and Firnstahl his teacher.
Wu begged Firnstahl for a chance to learn her craft. His wife is Korean and he’s always loved the food and the culture. She said sure, but he’d have to start at the bottom, bussing and waiting tables. He accepted the challenge, took everything she threw at him — including the yelling.
“She made me call her kyosu-nim, that’s Korean for professor, the whole time I was apprenticing!”
And so he learned the ways of bibimbap, of kimchi, of jahpchae.
“Jahpchae is like the easiest thing to make,” Wu says.
“Eddie-ya please don’t say that. I’m from Korea! I’m 63 years old!” Firnstahl snaps back.
After sarcastically asking Wu if he may allow her to explain, she turns to me: Jahpchae is special occasion food. These seasoned sweet potato noodles and julienned vegetables are something you make for a birthday, not an afterthought prepared by just “throwing it in a stir-fry pan,” as many Korean-American kitchens do.
When Wu goes to interject again she says to him firmly, “May I? Eddie-ya, may I? I’m from Korea.”
He takes it in stride, laughs, and defers to her. He calls her “Kimberly-ci” now, a term of respect.
Firnstahl immigrated here in 1972 and was under the impression that money grew on trees in America. She got most of her ideas about the U.S. via little black-and-white televisions that people paid by the hour to watch in Seoul. They paid, got a stamp on their hands, and could watch for a set period of time. The American women all had huge hair, tiny waists, and hoop skirts that flowed down to the ground.
When she arrived in Minneapolis in October 1972, it wasn’t dollar bills tumbling down the sidewalks, but crunchy dead leaves. She immediately wanted to go back home.
But in short order, she was married with two kids, and it was too late. She was stuck. This was home now.
She didn’t like to cook, either. Her mom was a good cook, and her older siblings took on the burden of kitchen chores. But now she had that husband and those kids, “and you don’t have a choice,” she says.
So she cooked. And because she had to make a living, she and her brother (who now owns Kimchi Tofu House in Stadium Village) opened the restaurant together. For a while she stepped away from the culinary side of things and operated Sole Cafe only as a karaoke bar. But that wasn’t profitable enough, so she went back to the stoves. (The karaoke machine is still on the premises for those in the know.)
Firnstahl still likes the work, but it’s tiring. She’s 63. She wants to retire in two years.
Wu says that she’s “always” retiring in two years.
The restaurant is successful because she runs it on her own with the help of just one server at a time. She arrives at 8:30 a.m. and works solo every day until close at 8:30 p.m. The kitchen is about 10 feet by 15 feet, and she runs it with the precision of a soldier. She picks up the edges of burning hot pots and pans with a pliers instead of a kitchen towel, and boiling hot soup goes directly into the hot stoneware that goes directly to the table. You can linger for an hour and your soup will never go cold.
Any conversation about Firnstahl’s cooking begins and ends with a conversation about heat. The tiny kitchen has an entire freezer devoted to chiles.
“A Korean spice level two is a Minnesota 10,” says Wu. “A Korean level eight doesn’t exist on the Minnesota scale.”
Wu recalls when he waited tables at Sole and had to contend constantly with diners who insisted they wanted their food as spicy as possible. He then had to contend with those diners asking for to-go boxes after trying a bite.
As we speak, a guy orders his soup at spice level eight.
“Another one’s gonna die today!” says Firnstahl before going to the stoves.
Wu says she’s got schadenfreude when it comes to spice.
And the food is hot. But that doesn’t take away from the nuance of Firnstahl’s recipes. Kimchi soup is a lake of fire with soft pillows of tofu and chewy nubbins of pork bobbing around. Broiled mackerel rests beneath more tofu, tender radish, scallion, and more red chile sauce. Wu’s favorite dish, the yugaejang, is the hottest of them all. (He’s allowed to order the full heat, no arguments.) The bowl teems with rich beef stock, brisket, cellophane noodles, and a bit of lacy egg floating through it like a diaphanous web.
It’s instantly my favorite of all the dishes, too. I start to believe I can take full spice the same as Wu, but as we attempt to continue our chat, we’re coughing, our eyes are watering, and Wu’s face has gone red. We both plunge in, foolishly, happily for another bite.
Mandu, seared pork dumplings with scallion, are one of the few things on the table with no spice, and quash the flame a little. Wu tells me they’re like Korean junk food, totally ubiquitous and loved by all. His five-year-old daughter can’t get enough.
Korean cuisine is having its day, with trendy restaurants everywhere piling hot dogs with kimchi and selling riffs on bibimbap and calling them “rice bowls.”
But Kimberly Firnstahl is from Korea. She doesn’t suffer fools, and she’ll gleefully laugh at your suffering through her fiery dishes. She’s also the unofficial mom to the 15,000 or so Korean adoptees who live in the state, using her facility with the Korean language to help them find their birth families or assist with their travel plans.
Or more often, just providing a place to sing a song or eat a dumpling.
This is home now.
684 Snelling Ave., St. Paul