Part of my goal in getting into food writing was to break out of my dining rut. Fittingly, Jipbap Taste of Korea was my first assignment.
Jipbap’s specialty is cupbap, which is relatively new in Korean cuisine. I imagine it’s similar to the burrito bowl in the way it’s made of traditional ingredients presented in a new way (in cupbap’s case, layered in a cup), and in the length of time it’s been on the world stage. However, unlike a burrito bowl (which usually just makes me wish I was eating an actual burrito) cupbap feels greater than the sum of its parts. Colors, textures, and flavors combine to create a dish that really shows a gal a new thing or two.
Located on Sixth Street, north of Green, Jipbap feels for all the world like a fast casual chain, but it’s not: this one is the only location. The signage, the camera-ready hip furnishings (picture plaid upholstered chairs and mason jar-like lights), and the yellow and red cups printed with the Jipbap logo all seem the product of much corporate roundtable discussion. This suited me just fine. Too many otherwise-promising local restaurants have closed because they don’t pay enough attention to details. Plus, the effect of Jipbap’s efforts are darned impressive.
A few touches betray the fact that it isn’t a chain. Most notably, the beverages: your choices are either a selection of popular bottled and canned drinks, or a free styrofoam cup full of cool water from their wall unit dispenser. Maybe ice water was available by request; I didn’t ask.
In fast-casual fashion, you order at the counter and absorb the ambiance for a few minutes while you wait for your food to be made. I asked for help ordering, putting myself in the uneducated-but-adventurous category. The server suggested either the Combo Cup Bap ($8.95), or the Jap Chae Cup Bap ($7.95). I’m not afraid to order a meat-forward dish, especially when dining with my husband, so I went with the Combo Cup Bap. I also ordered dumplings served salad-style. Given the choice of sauces (mild, medium, or hot), I went with medium for the combo and hot for the dumplings.
Let’s start with the Combo Cup Bap. Peering down into the dish, you see three kinds of meat — Korean barbecue beef, chicken, and pork — under a drizzle of sriracha mayo and teriyaki sauce. It’s easy to imagine the meal has a zillion grams of fat until you give it a few passes with your chopsticks (or fork); quickly the other components rise to the top: two kinds of carbs, potato noodles and rice, and crisp romaine lettuce.
Putting those hot ingredients on top of lettuce is where the dish achieves brilliance. The romaine wilts ever so slightly while retaining its crunch, and the bright green color helps keep the eye’s interest. The only thing the dish could have used was extra sauce, which luckily we had on hand (more on that in a bit).
Less successful, in my opinion, was the dumpling salad: dumplings served atop (again) romaine. The dumplings were crispy and flavorful, and the garlicky chili bibim (bee-beam) sauce they came with was a spice-lover’s dream come true, but there was simply not enough creaminess in the dish to turn the whole into what I’d call a salad. The half hard-boiled egg on top was yummy and visually pleasing, however.
I happily dipped my dumplings in the bibim sauce but didn’t think pouring it directly on the salad would work, kind of like a salad made of only lettuce and salsa. I did, however, dump it onto the second half of the Combo Cupbap and was very happy with the results.
Two other dishes we tried, this time from the grab-and-go offerings, were the tuna kimbap and rice balls. Their variety of triangle kimbap sells for $3 apiece, or 2 for $5. Two of them should keep your belly happily full for an entire day.
Going in, I thought the seaweed encasing the kimbap would be biteable, but it unfolded like a sheet of cellophane when the printed wrapper came off. I took a little nibble of the seaweed and found that was enough. Inside was a layer of creamy, spicy tuna salad between two thick layers of white rice. My husband and I attacked it with our utensils, dipping each bite into one of the three complimentary sauces you can ask for at the counter: teriyaki, fry sauce, and sriracha mayo. (Side note: get whatever sauces they offer you, and get extra if you can. They were all amazing, but the bibim and fry sauce in particular have haunted my dreams.)
I knew the rice balls would be a gamble but had to try them. Based on what my eyes took in, my American brain expected them to taste like sugar-dusted plain and chocolate donut holes, even though I knew good and well they would not.
Sure enough, the coating reads more like a fine bread crumb on the tongue, the shell of the ball has a taste and texture somewhere between chilled bread dough and a marshmallow, and the filling inside seemed to be a sweet bean paste. My first thought was “nah,” but after my brain had some time to adjust, I kind of really wanted another one.
And speaking of their grab-and-go selections, Jipbap’s location makes it easy to take advantage of these. It is located in the same block as the new Campustown parking garage; street parking is also ample nearby.
There’s never a better time to check out campus restaurants than in the summer, so if you are in need of a new food adventure, strike while the iron (and weather) are hot and give Jipbap a try.
Google maps lists the address for Jipbap Taste of Korea as 619-649 South Sixth Street Champaign (Sixth and East Healey, north of Noodles & Company). The hours are Monday through Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
All photos by Rachael McMillan.