Review: Robot Kimbap in Noksapyeong (녹사평 로봇김밥)

Since I grew up in the States, I didn't grow up with the ubiquitous boonshik jibs (분식집) of Korea. These small stores specialize in the Korean equivalent of fast and inexpensive food, somewhat like diners in the States, dishing out cheap eats like kimbap, rabokki, jeh yook bokkeum and such. Students especially are frequently seen in these joints with their friends after school to get some snacks before studying away more the evening.

Probably since I didn't grow up around these joints and their food, even after moving to Korea I've never really been a big fan of eating from these chain kimbap stores or even picking up those prepackaged doshiraks (aka bento) from convenience stores around here. Sure, they're cheap and convenient but everything tastes overladen with MSG and the quality of the ingredients is often very visibly sub-par (and that's usually a deal breaker for me).

This new place called Robot Kimbap opened up near my place recently which elicited a lot of curiosity from me, even as it prepped to open, for its bright decor, size and its intriguing concept of "healthy" kimbap. With Noksapyeong being such a trendy neighborhood in recent years with higher-than-average priced foreign foods, would a kimbap place (of all Korean cuisine too) be able to fare in this competitive area?

Interestingly enough, the place is actually an offshoot of an existing original restaurant, located in Mokdong. I hadn't heard nor been to that parent location but seeing as how it had seen enough success in its original location to spur on a new branch, I was eager to try it out.

Robot Kimbap's model revolves around its food being healthy and fresh. Its kimbaps for example puts in less rice and more of the other fresh ingredients for the filling, creating a fuller kimbap and one that's a better value for your money. It specifically pledges to offer healthier and nutritious yet filling meals and promises it doesn't add any MSG while utilizing brown rice and pork and chicken from Korea.

Two friends and I dropped by a Sunday afternoon and was stunned to see the place not only packed but a wait line to be seated.

The menu here is similar to what you would find in other bunshik places including kimbaps, ddukboki, udon, fkamen, donkatsu, rice plates and more but made fresh-to-order and with healthy twists.



Between the three of us on our visit, we ordered two different kinds of kimbap (their fresh wasabi mayo tuna and their robot galbi) , a rabokki (ddukbokki with ramen) and an order of their barbecued spicy pork (jeyook dup bap).

True to their word, the kimbaps are fat boys with the rice really kept to a minimum. They definitely try and make it a good value for your won as they really amp to put in the protein as the biggest fillers.All kimbaps include seaweed, egg, perilla leaves, carrot, cucumber, pickled radish and burdock (우엉).

The tuna wasabi mayo kimbap (3,800 won) had a nice kick to it from the fresh wasabi which complimented the tuna very well. I could definitely see why it was one of their best selling kimbap. The galbi kimbap (4,000 won) was also very tasty with the smoky sweet pork rib meat in ample supply. I was afraid at first glance the galbi meat would be a little dry but it's surprisingly tender.

The other kimbaps on the menu are intriguing and my first robot kimbaps made me eager to try out their other rolls in the future. Interesting kimbaps on the menu include Alaska king crab and cream cheese kimbap,  king bean meat kimbap (with a fake meat derived from beans as the central ingredient), a grilled chicken breast kimbap, double cheese kimbap and more. The cheapest kimbap is 2,900 won (not including the junior kimbap for kids at 2,500 won) and the most expensive kimbap goes for 4,800 won (which includes galbi and sliced chedder cheese). All orders come with some simple broth for sipping, pickled radish (danmooji 단무지) and kimchi. Interestingly enough, the kimchi is a pre-stir fried one which definitely amps the flavor and was very tasty.

The kimbaps are a few thousand wons more pricier than your neighborhood kimbap joint but you're definitely getting your money's worth with the stuffed fillings and bigger roll size so it's definitely good value and leaves you fuller too.

Galbi kimbap and wasabi tuna mayo kimbap
Minimum rice, packed fillings!

Stir-fried kimchi instead of regular kimchi served on the side

Closeup of a galbi kimbap piece
Look how packed with meat it is!

Closeup on a wasabi tuna kimbap piece

The rabokki (4,000 won) tasted exactly as it looked- just average. You can't really go wrong with rabokki but there wasn't anything that particularly stood out about it. I think the sauce could have had a little more kick to it though I'll give them kudos for making sure the noodles and dduk weren't overcooked . Doubt I'd order it again on future visits.

Rabokki

The jehyook dupbap (7,000 won), on the other hand, was both a winner visually and taste-wise. Rice came topped with spicy sweet jehyook (barbecued pork) fresh from the grill and the platter comes with a simple salad, some more kimchi, a macaroni salad, lightly seasoned cucumbers and some braised quail eggs.

Jeh yook dub bap platter

The barbecued pork had all the nice char marks and flavors from the grill it came from which is definitely not easy to replicate in Korean homes. Many bunshik places which serve this same dish usually get their meat in frozen, prepackaged sealed bags from a factory but you could certainly tell at Robot Kimbap the meat was freshly prepared in-house and grilled to order. The sweet flavors of the marinade were accentuated by its time on the grill and not at all salty or overly sweet. It's less "saucy" than your typical jehyook but doesn't lose out on any taste factors and was very tender. The sunny side egg on top and its yolk helped bring the pork and rice together with a nice subtle coat. While jehyook is supposed to have a spicy kick to it, I didn't find it spicy at all however and I think most kids would definitely be able to enjoy this dish too.

The sides were very simple and you could tell Robot Kimbap was aiming to keep it light and healthy- the mayo in the macaroni salad was kept to a light touch and the salad wasn't drowning in dressing either. As filling as the meal was, those with bigger appetites may want to order a kimbap on the side in addition to any dupbap orders.

Other items on the plate menu include donkatsu, hamburg steak, garlic butter shrimp, stir fried kimchi and pork belly and even yook geh jang (육개장). All plates are priced between 6,800 won and 8,500 won.

Look at those beautiful char marks!

I was a bit skeptical at how well an establishment serving Korean food in Noksapyeong would fare but each time I've passed by Robot Kimbap since its opening, business seems to be booming more than ever.

I, too, definitely was converted to a fan after my visit. Using fresh ingredients to make healthy but flavorful meals are all factors important to me in all forms of eating and Robot Kimbap definitely met the marks in all those factors. Sure, the prices are a little higher than that of a chain kimbap place, but not by much and I can definitely justify paying just a few thousand more wons to get fresh, nutritious and filling ingredients in my meal instead of filling it up with rice, sauce, and MSG.

With the taste buds of many regions like the United States shifting towards healthier meals, Robot Kimbap is exactly the kind of concept and style that I think could help win over new Korean food fans abroad while accurately reflecting healthy and flavorful Korean flavors. And I believe it could do so without using gimmicks and losing its Korean food "soul" in the process (I'm talking about places like YOU, Bibigo).

A minor thing I wish they'd change is the lighting. The bizarre choice to use bright, white florescent lighting in addition to the minimal and inorganic interior makes me feel more like I'm in a hip clothing shop (like an A Land branch) or some garage studio rather than a dining place. Bunshik places, in particular, usually are places where close friends, family members or dating couples get their eating fix together and the lighting and decor at Robot Kimbap certainly doesn't match the warm sentiments these places usually conveys- not to mention the lighting makes food a little less aesthetically pleasing.

On the other hand, I guess my attention would be more focused on whatever I'm eating here the next time I hit Robot Kimbap up and not so much the ceiling :)

Ratings: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Address: 

서울시 용산구 이태원 동 563
563, Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul 

Another location is in Mokdong
서울시 양천구 목동 905-34 하나프라자 1층
905-34, Mokdong, Yangcheongu, Seoul on the first floor of the Hana Plaza building

Telephone: 02-794-9595 (Itaewon branch) and 02-2642-1313 (Mokdong branch)

Parking: Very limited parking right against the curb of the restaurant but the alley is not large so I'd advise leaving cars at home (especially bigger vehicles)

Alcohol: Bottled beers include Dry Finish D, Hoegaarden, Heineken, Coronoa and Queen's Ale in addition to your standard sodas and juices

Tip: If you're passing through the area en route to somewhere or live in the vicinity, you can just call and make your order and pick up your food to avoid any lines. No delivery though. 

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