Food truck review: Korean-inspired Ajumama is a terrific food truck

From the May 15, 2014 edition

Ajumama, an often-lauded food truck, just turned two years old. This seemed like a fitting occasion — especially since the arrival of spring has made al fresco dining desirable again — to see how the Korean-inspired mobile vendor is faring lately.

When I caught up with Ajumama at its regular Saturday gig outside Four String Brewing (which is also two years old), I got much more than I expected. See, as I munched on Ajumama’s distinctive-but-accessible menu and sipped on fresh beers made in an indie taproom/brewery started by a local musician (whom I’d recently seen playing his bass — get it, four string? — in a “Why isn’t Cheap Trick in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” tribute band), I felt like I was actually eating and drinking a moment in Columbus history. Call it rich gulps of the hopefully unstoppable rise of this city’s ever-growing, anti-corporate, DIY, follow-your-dreamers. And call it delicious.

Four String’s mmm-I-smell-beer-brewing confines are garage-simple but efficient, clean and a fine hangout to kill some time. There are a couple tables, a sporty TV, straight-ahead-but-not-so-cliche rock playing, and a little bar where $5 pints are available — try an excellent Spring Sessions IPA — or, better yet, get a four mini-glass flight for $6. Alright, let’s eat.

Though it griddles and fries genuine Korean-style vittles, Ajumama whips up some great melting-pot cuisine. In fact its very name is a cooked-together stew of the Korean word “ajumma” (sorta like ma’am) and our American “mama” (self-explanatory).

In a similar vein, Ajumama’s phenomenal Bulgogi Cheezesteak ($8) is a harmonious chorus of “Philly Seoul,” and the deserving winner of Best Sandwich at last year’s Columbus Food Truck Festival. I’ve had my share of cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, and Ajumama’s messy junk food masterpiece not only nails the form, it ups the ante. So there’s the pillowy-yet-sturdy toasted roll, the generous minced meat and onion base and the blanket of Cheez Whiz-y stuff, but also that addictive sweet-soy-and-ginger-hinting Bulgogi flavoring, charred shishito peppers and a sprinkling of scallions. Just add 20 napkins, and you’ll be happy for hours.

Alright, time for the analogy game: Risotto is to arancini as bibimbap is to Bimbim Balls (2/$5). In other words, just as Italians will deep-fry their famous rice preparation into crispy globes, Ajumama makes golden-brown, panko-crusted spheres out of Korea’s renowned “mixed rice” dish. Ajumama’s delightful, crunchy-not-greasy biggies came flavored with diced veggies, sesame oil, crinkly nori, drizzles of spicy gochujang and more.

Also crispy-not-greasy was an impressive special of fried handmade dumplings (mandu; $6). The lovely edge-crimped quartet of pot-sticker-esque pockets came stuffed with a scallion-y/aromatic, juicy and sausagey filling of what Ajumama’s menu called ground beef (though it seemed porky to me).

Pajeon is a Korean classic, a sorta crepe-y/frittata-ish, scallion-strewn savory pancake with variable add-ins. I’ve had a few from Ajumama, and maybe I’ve just had bad luck, but frankly, I wish they would’ve been more crispy, more flavorful and less flabby. My last one was a “spicy pork and kimchi” version ($7) that wasn’t spicy and had negligible kimchi in it. I mean it didn’t suck, it just wasn’t up to the standards of Ajumama’s other stuff.

Fortunately, Ajumama’s signature dessert snack called hodduk ($3) never fails to wow. Think about the flavor-profile of a nutty cinnamon roll intensified and compressed into a pretty little pancakey disc — and think about ordering two of them ($5), because these warm and comforting treats are absolutely terrific.

Photos by Meghan Ralston