Houstonians will soon be able to save themselves a lengthy drive to Austin when the craving for Chi’Lantro BBQ’s K’Pop chicken or original kimchi fries hits. The Korean-Mexican fusion food truck-turned-restaurant, which earned national fame after appearing on Shark Tank, is opening an outpost in Houston on Monday, April 3 in the Heights Forum Development at 1324 N. Shepherd Dr. This marks the brand’s first location outside of Austin and 11th location in total.
Many Houstonians are already familiar with the fast-casual concept that features a playful menu of Korean BBQ-focused eats including customizable bowls, salads, ssams (wraps), and the restaurant’s call to fame, the original kimchi fries, topped with meat, caramelized kimchi, shredded cheese, onion, cilantro, Magic Sauce, Sriracha, and sesame seeds — a fan favorite that is served more than 200,000 times per year.
Back in 2010, founder and CEO Jae Kim took a leap of faith when he maxed out his credit cards and drained his savings to launch a Korean-Mexican fusion food truck. Kim was a California native who moved to Texas, living in Houston for a short time, until he decided to relocate to Austin to pursue his dream. “I was scouting locations, and I felt like Austin was the place to open at that time,” he says.
He attributes the success of Torchy’s original trailer on South First Street in Austin as one of the main reasons he was intrigued by the capitol city. “I saw the trailer parked there and the long lines, so I asked the owner if I could park my food truck next to it to get some of their overflow,” he recalls, laughing. “He said no, but that food trailer scene, with all of the people, and the late nights — that’s what I was looking for.”
In the next six years, Kim’s single food truck grew to a fleet of five, plus he was operating two Chi’Lantro BBQ restaurants. In 2016, he landed the opportunity to appear on Shark Tank, during which he showcased his signature dish, the original kimchi fries, which were an instant hit, and he struck a deal. Today, the Chi’Lantro BBQ brand has grown to 11 locations, with more slated to open in Houston this year, and its two remaining food trucks are reserved for catering and special events.
For the Chi’Lantro BBQ Heights locale, Kim enlisted Tom Lee, founder and principal at Austin-based Tenet Design, to lead the charge in the design of its space. Like its Austin counterparts, guests are welcome to walk the line and place an order, similar to Chipotle, and there are 40 seats inside and 12 outside that they may retreat to with their meals.
“In 2015, we scaled back to focus on the brick-and-mortar expansion in Austin, and I am thrilled that, after almost a decade, we are returning to the city where my journey in Texas began. Houston holds a special place in my heart, and I am excited at the opportunity to rekindle my connection with this diverse and culinary-focused community,” says Kim.