This AYCE Korean buffet is $7. So what's the catch?

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Update 09/27/17: Due to overwhelming response from this article, 88 Supermarket has changed the buffet policy from all-you-can-eat to whatever you can fit on your plate/bowl in one pass.

Korean supermarkets are the stuff dreams are made of. From the halmonis hawking consignment handbags to aisles of kimchi, instant ramyun noodles and dried seaweed, I could spend all day in one and consider it time (and money) well spent.

When Koreans line up for a Korean buffet, you know it’s gonna be good.

This time, though, it’s not the groceries drawing me to Koreamoku — it’s the tiny cafeteria in the back of 88 Supermarket (formerly known as Keeaumoku Supermarket). Everyday except Sunday, aunties and uncles line up for a $7 all-you-can-eat buffet lunch feast between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Choose from over 20 items and go up as many times as you need.

You read that correctly. Seven. Dollars.

So what does seven buckaroos get you exactly? After laying down the cash, you’ll be handed a school kine lunch tray and a styrofoam bowl. For a dollar more, you can snag a bottle of water from the refrigerator. Then you're let loose on over a dozen banchan varieties, japchae, stewed eggplant, zucchini jun, buldak (spicy chicken stew), spicy pork bulgogi, kim bap rolls and more. The next station is for your bowl, where you have a choice of seaweed soup, doenjang chige miso soup, and two types of rice. The options rotate throughout the week but stay close to this selection.

So what’s the catch? If you break the rules, you’re assessed a fine (and probably the stinkest of eyes from all the halmoni that worked so hard to make the food).

To avoid being “that guy,” just follow the rules:

1. No sharing. One plate per person. Come on, it’s $7!
2. No takeout. If you’re caught sneaking your plate away, you’ll be fined.
3. No wasting. If you throw out food, you’ll be fined.

If you’re wondering what the fine is, don’t ask, because you’re not going to break the rules, so you shouldn’t even be worrying about it. Okay?

Serious plates.

By 10:50 a.m. Saturday, there was already a line 25 deep. As the only non-Korean, I felt like I had stumbled upon a poorly guarded secret. The queue moves fast but the tables are soon occupied, so bringing a friend to tag-team so one of you can save seats would be wise. I’ve heard that people stand and eat after seats fill up.

My plate with ddukbokki, japchae, namul, kimchi, spinach, eggplant, mandoo, beef kim bap and spicy pork bulgogi. I had some seaweed soup on the side but passed on the rice.

Luckily, two kind aunties invited me over to their table after seeing me with a full plate and nowhere to go. Through broken English we talked about Korean food and my recent trip to Seoul — a little reminder that we’re all not so different when we bond over food. They were astonished I knew about this gem and the bingsu shave ice at En Hakkore coffee bar on the other side of the market.

Have you seen a supermarket restaurant so busy?

I found the quality of the food to be better that what you’d find for $7 elsewhere. Can you get even a fast food value meal for under $7 these days?

The kimchi and banchan dishes are mildly seasoned yet hold up well on their own.

I could have gone back for more japchae and kim bap, but decided to save room for shave ice and allow the next group of diners to tackle the buffet. I’ll be back and I’m bringing friends.

88 Supermarket
835 Keeaumoku St.
Ala Moana
941-1300

Buffet hours: Mon - Sat 11 a.m. - 2 p.m., closed Sun
Buffet is cash only