In the years since Guy Fieri first started driving around the country, the adventurous diner has been on the lookout for the mystical hole-in-the-wall eatery that somehow balances living in obscurity with the ability to turn a profit and stay in business.
In the internet age, often the hunt is in vain; those nondescript strip mall spaces and dilapidated highway off-ramp buildings are usually just as underwhelming as you’d think they’d be.
Sometimes, though, you do manage to find a restaurant that punches above its weight, and in this case, you have to go to the back of an Asian grocery to find it.
Sandwiched between a mattress store and Pizza Hut in the Parklane Shopping Center at Lincoln and Oliver, it’s easy to dismiss Grace Market as just another Asian market on the southeast side of town. Walk past the two aisles’ worth of ramen noodles, soy sauce and boxed curry, however, and you’ll find six tables and the large welcoming awning of Grace Kitchen.
The menu is as small as the dining area, made up of 10 entrees and five appetizers of primarily Korean origin. You’re not going to find many options here that you wouldn’t be able to find in Wichita’s other Korean restaurants, but by limiting the selection, they boost consistency and value.
Set aside a long lunch hour if you order any of the four soups on the menu, as the giant bowl will take 15 minutes to cool and another 45 minutes to eat. The samgyetang is a homey chicken soup that’s porridge-thick with a hefty amount of rice and loaded with the entirety of a small chicken, bones and all. Aside from the experience of picking the tender meat off the bone, the flavors are familiar but different thanks to the slightly medicinal ginseng and a touch of sweetness from a jujube, a red date that’s traditionally along for the ride.
For a less labor-intensive meal, the kimchi stew is exactly what it sounds like: an overloading portion of spicy and sour vegetables at the bottom of a steaming hot bowl of broth and tofu. Its sinus-clearing properties make it perfect for a brisk winter day or while under the throes of a cold.
The menu’s short summary for the bulgogi describes it as “very tender” slices of beef. This description is apt and, combined with the sweet and glutamate-rich marinade, makes for a satisfying and straightforward dish. More of a curveball was the kimbap, if only because of its price: At $5.99, I was expecting an appetizer-sized portion, not two full maki sushi-style rolls of fish, vegetables and – of course – a little bit of kimchi for good measure.
This generosity in portion sizes doesn’t always pay off. The kimchi pancake, available only when there’s enough of a lull for the cooks to spend the extra time making it, is chock full of frozen mollusks and baby octopodes that add a lot of chew but little else to the otherwise fluffy and savory dish.
A sizable portion of the store is devoted to Japanese foods, so the cafe’s menu offers a few Japanese dishes, too. I wasn’t expecting much from the gyoza, but the blistering skin was wonderfully crunchy and gave way to a nice morsel of pork. Similarly fried and delicious were the thick chunks of tempura vegetables, which provided the light and crispy texture you’d expect, with minimal greasiness.
In case you don’t want to shove your way through a dozen other cramped patrons, Grace Market offers a call-ahead ordering system. Give them 30 minutes, and anything on the menu will be ready for you to pick up. Give them 15 minutes, and you can have your dine-in order waiting on your table. Grace Market might be considered an intimidating visit if it weren’t for the friendly personnel and the quaint atmosphere they manage to squeeze from the back quarter of this small grocery. Their success comes in not trying to do too much, offering a good value and providing lots of different kimchi with everything ordered. It’s the kind of unexpected hole-in-the-wall place you’d expect to find on the Food Network.
Where: 1030 S. Oliver, in the Parklane Shopping Center; 316- 260-3111
Type of food: Korean, Japanese
Hours: 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday