On a recent evening, I arrived at Kimchi Yay at 5:40 p.m. Opening at 5:30 p.m. and offering just 14 seats, no reservations, and a schedule based on the ever-changing North Carolina weather, I wanted to ensure a seat and that the bright day would remain cloudless for the remainder of my dinner. 

I sat down and ordered a soju punch cocktail, that night flavored with cucumber and honeydew melon and a touch of lime. It was, as it sounds, light and refreshing. 

A look at the menu was similar to scanning the Sunday comics: a bap burger is illustrated as two orange creatures with bellies resembling shag carpet – they are representing rice pressed around a filling of cucumber and tuna or pork, egg and kimchi; a piece of grinning tofu sits in a spoonful of kimchi jijgae, a stew, with a speech bubble, “sip sip slurp; a dumpling, or mandu, cries for help while squished between a pair of chopsticks. Each piece of food is given a curious face and life, allowing patrons to comfortably question their waitperson – “what exactly is in this dish?” 

Though the dishes don’t change, their ingredients often do. Meat is limited throughout the options, but watch out vegetarians, they liberally use shellfish and fish sauce in a variety of unlisted places. 

With several options in front of me, I was caught between the buchimgae, or scallion pancake with pork, kimchi, and horseradish aioli, or the dosirak dubbed “chaos in a box,” which featured meat, mini anchovies, nori, kimchi, cucumber, sesame and egg. 

A friendly face nearby suggested his favorite, the dosirak, and what he deemed a good “beginners” option. 

I took the advice and was not disappointed. 

Creamy yolk oozed into the other parts of my box as I poked the chopsticks into the center of my over-easy egg – something I was advised to do before snapping the box closed and giving it a good shake. 

Upon opening the box, tangy red sauce coated all of the pieces, kimchi was mixed throughout, tiny anchovies clung to the pork. Each ingredient clung to it's own flavor while finding it's rightful spot in a new form. Though the look took a sharp turn from vibrant reds, greens and a punch of yellow into a lunchbox disaster, the taste and overall experience made up for the final look. 

Though these dishes bring patrons into the world of fun and experimental Korean cuisine, Chef Aaron Vandemark was careful when choosing the name for this new creative venture. 

“I don’t refer to it as a Korean restaurant, I don’t think that’s the right way to classify it,” Vandemark navigates during a recent conversation. “Korean food isn’t my food – and that’s a weird thing to say...That’s a larger philosophical conversation. I didn’t want it to necessarily have a Korean name or the word “Korean” in the title, but I didn’t have any issue with using the name of a food people might associate with what the heart of what we’re doing, which is trying to be respectful of the source material.” 

Pancuito, the restaurant located just a step inside behind Kimchi Yay, is an Italian restaurant opened 12 years ago. 

Though he’s got a knack for Italian excellence, he has always found the fermentation processes in Korean-based food interesting. When the option for outdoor dining arose, he faced the option to expand Pancuito or try something riskier, perhap “weirder,” something unconventional. Kimchi Yay was finally brought to life, though for local residents, it just suddenly popped up one day three weeks ago in downtown Hillsborough. 

“Kimchi Yay was this idea of the celebration of kimchi and just in a tongue-in-cheek silly way and not taking ourselves too seriously with it,” Vandemark said, “though we’re taking the food seriously. The projects not a joke, but we wanted to stay light with it. 

“This is allowing me to be be re-energized and reinvigorated in a way by having to start over in a sense from a culinary standpoint,” he continued. “To study and practice and fail and improve, and I enjoy that process.” 

The hours mirror those of Pancuito: 5:30 p.m. to “close,” or 8:30/9 p.m. As the project continues to evolve, lunch or later options will be considered.