What started as a Korean barbecue food truck is now Zzaam!, a Korean grill in Carytown. Sweet Frog founder and former owner Derek Cha first transformed his food truck into a restaurant in Charlottesville, with a location now in Richmond, and with plans to expand to Colonial Heights and Fullerton, California. After a recommendation from a friend and high expectations due to its rapid growth, I decided to try Zzaam! Fresh Korean Grill.
Using a similar approach as Chipotle, Zzaam! lets you customize your order by first offering a choice between a rice, noodle, or salad bowl, then picking a protein, then Korean toppings, and finally a sauce. You can also choose sides, such as pork dumplings or egg rolls. After arriving and waiting in a brief line, my friends and I were greeted by a friendly Zzaam! employee who recognized our slight confusion about what to order and proceeded to nicely explain how the line and ordering works. As we ordered, the server kindly answered all of our questions, specifically about which sauce would fit each of our desired spiciness and best compliment the meal. According to RVA Magazine, you can even sample the sauces to help sway your decision. While most of the available ingredients looked fresh and tasty, I have to say that the fried egg, which you can add for $1.00, was pre-fried and sitting in a bowl on the counter, looking rather soggy. I decided to avoid this and stuck with the brighter, healthier looking vegetables.
For my meal, I selected a noodle bowl (without broth) and chicken, pickled cucumbers, roasted carrots, bean sprouts, roasted onion, zucchini, cheese, and cilantro, along with Zzaam! sauce. Although I cannot identify what was in this sauce, it added a mild kick to the fresh flavors from the vegetables. The array of vegetables created a blend of textures that complemented each other nicely. My only criticism is that the bowl was so filled with the ingredients piled on that it was difficult to get a bite that contained all of the flavors. The noodles, which were stuck at the bottom, were difficult to get to until I ate some of the vegetables off the top first and could then stir it up.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed the dish, I can tell that the food served at Zzaam! would not be considered traditional Korean food. There were few traditional Korean options aside from kimchi, pork dumplings, and a few others. After deciding between the dumplings and egg rolls, I settled on the egg rolls. I thought it was too greasy, and there was too much roll and not enough filling, but Libbie Alexander (‘18) described it as “the best egg roll I’ve ever had!”
Everyone in our dining party had rave reviews about their combinations of food. Laney Reed (‘18) got a noodle bowl with broth, chicken, edamame, roasted carrots, bean sprouts, zucchini, cilantro, and teriyaki sauce. She said, “[the restaurant] is perfect for anyone. I’m a picky eater, and even I enjoyed it because you choose exactly what you want to eat.”
Lauren Brizzolara (‘18) also got a noodle bowl with broth; however, she stated that the broth was bland and really not necessary because it did not add anything to the meal. Her dish also included chicken, roasted carrots, bean sprouts, roasted onions, edamame, corn, zucchini, and teriyaki sauce.
A major perk of Zzaam! is its convenience. Unlike most places in Carytown, Zzaam! has a small parking lot, which Brizzolara said, “is amazing because it makes an otherwise stressful search for a spot very simple.” It is also quick to order so it would be easy to get food to-go, if you desire. You can even order online. If you decide to dine-in, there is a variety of seating, including small and large tables both indoors and out, as well as a counter looking out onto Cary Street. There is also a television that was broadcasting the Australian Open at the time of our visit. This variety of ambience factors makes the restaurant a place that everyone would enjoy.
Overall, it was certainly worth trying. I completely agree with how Brizzolara summarized the experience: “I loved that I felt like I was eating cheap, healthy food that I would not normally eat. It was very good, and I would definitely go again.” Saying this with great enthusiasm, she then added, “Sorry, I’m just so passionate about Zzaam! now!”
All photos by Frances Melvin.