When Eden Lim was growing up in Ilsan, Korea, she remembers her mother rarely bought her sweets.
“But when I’d visit my grandparents’ house, we would go to a Korean-style spa every Sunday,” she says. “And in front of the spa, there was a small cart selling shaved ice.”
That’s where she had her very first bingsoo (Korean shaved ice), which she says was pleasant and sweet, but rough with big chunks of ice — not as milky or soft as the offerings at the popular bingsoo cafe Mealtop that she’d eventually help introduce to America.
Joon Baek, chief executive of Mealtop USA, is bringing Korea’s longest-running shaved ice brand to Southern California, with Lim as general manager.
Mealtop Cafe, which started in 1985, calls itself “the luxury bingsoo,” a nod to carefully selected ingredients and recipes made in-house from scratch.
The Mealtop Cafe at The Source OC in Buena Park will stage its grand opening on Saturday. The Los Angeles Koreatown location opens June 29.
While there are 19 Mealtop locations in Korea and one in Dubai, these two SoCal locations are the only branches in the U.S.
“Our shaved ice is very traditional and true to the Korean way of making shaved ice, meaning we don’t mix any dairy products with our ice,” says Lim.
She explains that while Taiwanese and Japanese shaved ice get their creamy texture by shaving blocks of ice that have been infused with milk, Korean bingsoo is made of pure ice that is shaved thinly enough that when they coat it with their secret-recipe syrup, it tastes creamy while maintaining a crisp coldness.
That’s why they not only pay a lot of attention to the quality of the ice, but they train their staff to shave and distribute the ice in the bowl to achieve just the right texture.
Also, while Hawaiian shave ice and Italian ices are known for a multitude of bright and colorful sugary syrups, Mealtop’s Korean shaved ice selections concentrate on lighter flavors like milk, strawberry, milk tea, matcha, coffee, red ginseng and 5-grain powder.
Most of their shaved ice is simply garnished, with sweet red beans and two cubes of fresh rice cake that are chewy inside and crispy outside. There is also an option to top it with fresh fruit.
In addition to the Mealtop originals, Lim — a chef who studied at Le Cordon Bleu and previously worked at West Hollywood rooftop bar EP & LP — will be creating desserts unique to the O.C. and L.A. Mealtop locations.
She’s currently fine-tuning an injeolmi (Korean rice cake made out of sweet rice) toast, an ang butter (a red bean paste and butter combination that’s becoming popular in Korea) cake and a baekseolgi (steamed rice cake) dessert.
Mealtop Cafe will have is grand opening at The Source OC in Buena Park at 10 a.m., and the first 50 people in line will receive free shaved ice. The Koreatown location (450 S Western Ave. Suite 308, Los Angeles) will have its grand opening on June 29, with free shaved ice handed out to the first 50 people who arrive at 2 p.m.