Given the bounty of farmers markets and food trucks in Charlottesville, Virginia, one can be a full-fledged foodie here without ever stepping into a restaurant. It was those open-air enterprises, in fact, that led to the opening of Umma’s, a vibrant downtown eatery serving Korean and Japanese dishes with local sourcing. A recent menu offered both comforting Korean fried chicken and umami-forward barbecued eel dressed with bonito fish flakes—but to order either, you had to get in line.
It all started with eggs. Specifically, eggs gathered by Jen Naylor from her garden-turned-homestead to sell at a morning farmers market. Soon Jen, who immigrated from Korea as a teenager, added Napa cabbage kimchi—fermented in thirty-gallon clay pots according to her mother’s recipe—and beef bulgogi bowls. Regulars showed at sunrise for the delicious breakfast and for the buoyant, nurturing personality that earned Jen the nickname Mama Bird. It wasn’t uncommon for her to yank a local chef from the line to man the booth’s grill so she could mingle more freely with customers.
Meanwhile, Jen’s daughter, Kelsey, was acquiring a more formal culinary education—and a growing obsession with Japanese cuisine that led her and partner Anna Gardner, also a restaurant vet, to relocate to rural Japan for a year. “I cooked at the local izakaya, pretty much a bar that serves seasonably focused snacks and skewered things that go well with drinks,” Kelsey says.
Upon their return to Charlottesville in 2019, they channeled that sojourn into a party-on-wheels food truck that earned instant raves for the faithfully executed ramen bowls and the whimsical takes on fast food, including a Big Mac–inspired steamed bun. The mobile kitchen was a hit, but when Kelsey, Anna, and Jen saw the chance to combine their food philosophies at a greenery-ensconced, brick-and-mortar spot just off Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall, they couldn’t resist. “We were definitely nervous but excited to have a real home base,” Kelsey says. “It’s nice to have a place where all your stuff is all the time.”
“Umma” is Korean for mom, and in the restaurant’s case, it’s Jen’s kimchi-matriarch mother, whose smiling visage graces the restaurant logo. Devotees from the farmers market and the food truck have followed them to their new address. Some come for the karaage (Japanese-style chicken nuggets; see recipe below). Others come for rotating Korean specialties such as grilled tiger shrimp in honey gochujang sauce. Many shop from the cold case holding Jen’s now-famous kimchis, scanning for prized seasonal versions that incorporate local golden apples or wild-foraged ramps. Most everyone arrives with the knowledge that these ladies do things a bit different. (Umma’s “let’s have fun” vibe includes after-hours dance parties.) “If you walk into a traditional Korean or Japanese restaurant, there is an expectation that things be done a certain way,” Kelsey says. “Umma’s isn’t at all traditional, but we think we’re still authentic.”