It’s been eight months since Arch’s Frozen Yogurt on Emmet Street closed up shop. Now, the owner of another yogurt company is gearing up to reopen the space, but the cups of ice cream, cookie dough bites, and whipped cream will be replaced with noodle bowls, Chinese broccoli, and kimchi. Owner Derek Cha, founder of SweetFrog frozen yogurt, said Zzaam!, the area’s first authentic Korean restaurant “with a Mexican twist,” will open its doors in early September.
Zzaam! will serve up freshly grilled meats and tofu cooked in traditional Korean marinades, and guests will build their own meals, Chipotle-style. Cha and his team have completely revamped the shop’s interior, replacing the brightly-colored walls and chalkboard menus with softer, more neutral tones and stonework. Leaning against one of the 10 downstairs tables last week was a stack of glass panels still packaged in plastic wrap, which will soon be installed around the serving line and inevitably covered in smudges from customers peering and pointing at the dozens of options.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Chipotle’s business model. It’s been working great, and Korean food lends itself really well to that model,” Cha said. “Charlottesville is into new, fresh concepts, and quick-serve healthy food with a lot of taste. It’s the perfect market to start this.”
The menu and the concept are pretty simple. Choose either a rice bowl, a noodle bowl, a platter, a lettuce wrap, three tacos, or the “zzaamburger.” Pick either local chicken, local pork, pork belly, beef, or tofu, then move on down the line to start piling on the toppings. For the $7.95 cost of a meal you get up to seven toppings ($0.50 each for any extras), which include sauteed mushrooms, green peppers, bell peppers, carrots, strips of cooked egg, zucchini, peanuts, crispy onions, kale, potatoes, bean sprouts, and fermented daikon, a southeast Asian root vegetable. Once your bowl or tortillas are loaded up with all the vegetables you can handle, top it all off with one of eight sauces, including classic ginger dressing, spicy teriyaki, sriracha mayo, and a tangy Korean taco sauce.
“People want to make their own creation,” Cha said. “They don’t want just the same hamburger anymore. They want to customize it, and be able to pick and choose.”
For little appetites, a kids’ menu will feature the same bowls in smaller portions for $5, which includes a drink. If the build-your-own Korean creation concept doesn’t strike your fancy, head on upstairs for a plate of Korean wings, edamame, or grilled chicken skewers, with a tall local brew. The second floor room, with two accessible patios and plenty of wall space for giant TVs, is the perfect spot for a bar, Cha said.
The bar will feature 20 beers on tap, bottled imports, and local wines. You won’t find any whiskey or vodka on the menu, but if you have a hankering for a mixed drink with your Korean grub, the barkeeps will have sake on hand to serve hot, cold, and in specialty cocktails. When the weather allows, chefs will also set up shop on the upstairs patios, grilling marinated meats and veggies on skewers in traditional Korean barbecue fashion. For those of you staying inside, expect local sports and “K-pop” (Korean pop music) as the entertainment of choice.
Cha spent the first 12 years of his life in Korea, and moved to the U.S. with his family in 1977. After moving around for several years, he ended up in Virginia in 2008. When the economy took a dive, he said he took note of the growing popularity of serve-yourself frozen yogurt shops, and in 2009 he launched SweetFrog. The Richmond-based froyo empire with the name that stands for “Fully Rely On God” has grown to more than 300 locations, and according to a report by Inc. 500, is the 22nd fastest-growing private company in the country this year. Cha and his business partner Sam Gang—who’s also a chef at Zzaam! and a Korea native—opened Sushi Box, a small Japanese restaurant in Richmond, in 2012, and sold it a few weeks ago.
Cha didn’t mention franchising Zzaam! any time soon, but he’s already brainstorming other ways to expose Charlottesville to authentic Korean food, like a street food festival. Noodle bowls and skewers don’t even scratch the surface when it comes to his native cuisine, Cha said, and street fare like japchae, a traditional stir-fried dish with sweet potato noodles and vegetables, is a quintessential piece of Korean culture that you can’t find anywhere around here.
If you don’t want to brave the mobs of UVA students on Emmet Street, keep an eye out for the Zzaam! food truck. It serves up a pared-down version of the restaurant’s menu (bowls, tacos, and sliders), and has been making its way back and forth between Charlottes-ville and Richmond since April.