All my friends know that Red Chili in Elizabethton is one of my very favorite restaurants. I’ve been enjoying Minae Ward’s wonderful meals at this restaurant since she opened back in October 2006.
It’s surprising how time flies. She has been in a business for almost seven years, becoming a regular fixture for many people looking for unique lunch spots in downtown Elizabethton.
Although her heritage is Korean, the menu for her restaurant might be best described as one of Asian fusion.
A couple of years ago, she responded to many requests from her customers and added a Friday evening dinner service. I finally got the chance to enjoy dinner at Red Chili with several friends. It was almost a spur-of-the-moment arrangement, but I had the forethought to check about reserving a table for six ahead of time. After some negotiation about the time for our reservation, I secured a table and the opportunity to introduce three of my friends to this wonderful gem of a local restaurant.
Minae’s husband, Roger, has a chiropractic practice in town, and he can often be seen in the restaurant.
When I first began frequenting Red Chili, Minae confided that she often tried out dishes on her husband and his family.
“My husband’s family is crazy for my food,” she noted.
The early days of hesitation about how her Korean and Asian dishes might be received by Southern Appalachian palates have been completely dispelled by the many fans who have discovered Red Chili since its opening.
The restaurant is tiny, hence the strong recommendation to make reservations for Friday dinners. Seating is limited to about a half-dozen tables. While we enjoyed our recent dinner, we watched as Minae had to reluctantly turn away a few customers who arrived without reservations.
Ward’s talent is not limited to her amazing cooking. She has also decorated the restaurant’s walls with tile mosaics she made herself. The rest of the decor emphasizes a very natural and pleasing atmosphere enhanced by green walls, candles and live bamboo in glass vases filled with pebbles. Well-placed mirrored panels along one wall create the illusion of opening up the small space a bit.
On my first dinner visit to Red Chili, my friends and I gathered at the table reserved for us. Our server took our beverage orders and provided us with dinner menus, which are slightly more extensive than the lunch ones.
We began with a perusal of the listing of appetizers, which runs from Kim-chee and Chicken Yakitori to Steamed or Fried Pork Mondu and Smoked Salmon Rice Bowl. She also offers two sushi hand rolls — a Creamy Salmon and Spicy Tuna.
Invariably, I order a dish of Kim-chee with every meal at Red Chili, and I did so on this occasion to introduce some of my friends to this version of what is considered a national dish in Korea.
Minae espouses the health value of this dish and makes her version from cabbage, garlic, ginger, red pepper and Korean onion with an assortment of spices. She also offers a version of this dish made with radish instead of cabbage, and Steamed Tofu with Kim-Chee is offered as a vegetarian appetizer option.
My dining party also chose two other meal-starters — Chicken Yakitori and Fried Pork Mondu — to share. The Chicken Yakitori is exclusive to the dinner menu and became an instant hit. This dish consists of succulent pieces of tender, seasoned chicken served on wooden skewers and garnished with green scallions.
The Mondu consists of six fried potstickers stuffed with minced pork and seasonings, all served with a tangy soy dipping sauce.
The dishes on the menu include some prepared with sweeter sauces and some featuring a little more spicy heat. Having some experience of many of the dishes on the menu, I steered my friends with a wariness of spice to some of the milder dishes.
Several entrees are available only on the dinner menu, including Garbi, or traditional Korean Teriyaki Ribs, as well as Korean Traditional Baby Back Ribs, Sea Bass Plate with Rice, Shitake-Teriyaki Chicken with Pesto Rice and a whole rack of French-cut Lamb Chops.
Diners can also order some of the dishes that have become lunch-time favorites, including Be-Bim-Bob, Korean Yellow Curry Chicken, Red Chicken, Bulgogi Lettuce Wraps, Crackling Rice Skillet and Shrimp and Noodles.
I considered such entrees as the Crunchy Pork and the Jop-Chae, which is mung bean noodles smothered with beef and vegetables and stir-fried in a sweet soy sauce. In the end, I chose one of the dinner-only dishes and ordered the Mega-Seafood Soup, which consists of a medley of sea bass, shrimp and mussels.
My dining companions ordered such dishes as the Duck Breast, Blue Chicken, Be-Bim-Bob and the Korean Baby Back Ribs.
Everything is made fresh-to-order, which means there is usually a slight wait between the time a meal is ordered and when it is served. We filled the time with pleasant dinner conversation until our meal arrived. The food was worth every moment.
My soup arrived in a large, attractive serving bowl that contained plump shrimp, a couple of mussels and some pieces of tender, delicious sea bass. These ingredients were served in a flavorful broth that also contained a medley of vegetables. All the dishes were presented in an attractive, appealing manner.
I also sampled the duck, which was sliced into bite-sized medallions, drizzled with an abalone sauce and served with a salad of red rice, bell peppers and roasted corn. The duck was exquisite and prepared in masterful fashion, crispy outside and tender and juicy inside.
The Korean Baby Back Ribs and the Blue Chicken were also big hits with my friends who ordered those dishes. The Blue Chicken consists of pan-fried chicken tenders coated with a ginger-teriyaki sauce and served with rice and a homemade blue cheese dressing.
My friends who had never dined at Red Chili left as new fans of this fine eatery. I left asking myself why it took me so long to enjoy a dinner at the restaurant.
The prices are a bit more expensive for items on the dinner menu, but are well worth the extra cost. Remember to make reservations for dinner or face disappointment if the restaurant becomes too crowded. With warmer weather around the corner, the restaurant does have a couple of outdoor tables. During our recent visit, two diners who arrived without a reservation chose to enjoy their food at the outdoor table despite brisk temperatures.
Whether for lunch or dinner, I’ve never been disappointed with a meal at Red Chili. If you’ve never dined with Minae, consider doing so. Let her know she and her restaurant were highly recommended.
AT A GLANCE: Red Chili, 435 E. Elk Ave., Elizabethton. 213-2104. Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday dinner, 5-8 p.m. Dinner entrees range from $12.95-$29.95. Cash and checks only; credit cards not accepted. Carryout available. Brown bagging permitted for Friday dinners.