Cool 'nomadic' dishes downtown

Times Staff Writer

IT'S been open just five months, but word-of-mouth is keeping the tables filled at Sohoju, a Korean-fusion spot in the Japanese Village Plaza Mall in Little Tokyo, that complex where Japanese-speaking tourists from nearby hotels are absorbed into a steady stream of locals headed for long-established Japanese American cafes and retailers.

Sohoju is one of a handful of new-generation restaurants moving into Little Tokyo and adjacent areas (Zip Fusion and Izakaya Haru Ulala are pioneers) with young, forward-thinking owners, fusion-friendly chefs, appealing decor and menus built around Asian pub food.

Unique among its old-fashioned neighbors, Sohoju (or SoHo House) has a clean, minimalist decor with dark wood tables and benches, Eames-style molded chairs, a back-lit wall of sake bottles and an entrance punctuated with an arc of slatted wood. It's intended to bring SoHo (as in Manhattan) to mind, and there are screen-printed hangings of New York street scenes on the walls. The menu identifies the cuisine as "Korean nomadic."

But the vibe isn't about definitions -- this is a warm, cheerful, welcoming spot for lunch, dinner or drinks and snacks. The food and service are inclusive and approachable, and the presentation of even traditional dishes is hip and stylish. Board-listed specials are priced to include alcohol choices; lingering and sharing plates is the order of the day (and night).

Embracing influences

OWNER Keeyong Kim, a young businessman from South Korea who's also developing a restaurant on Main Street in Santa Monica, and chef Jaewoon Jung, who previously worked at top hotels in South Korea, have created an appealing menu that doesn't neglect Korean favorites while it embraces European, American and other Asian influences.

Lunch combinations begin with an exquisite soup, a mild and aromatic broth embellished with paper-thin slices of fork-tender daikon.

Bulgogi beef -- marinated, grilled beef slices and one of the most familiar of Korean dishes -- arrives, not as separate dishes of beef, lettuce and condiments, but with the various components -- sliced beef, six tiny lettuce cups, vegetables -- arranged around a large square plate. The portion is generous; the beef, tender and flavorful. It's served, as are other combination orders, with discrete scoops of the signature house rice, delicately flavored with green tea and sprinkled with sesame seeds and tiny, tissuey threads of seaweed.

Jap chae chicken is beautiful too, a sesame-scented knot of translucent sweet-potato noodles surrounded by pieces of highly seasoned chicken and crowned with a composition of thinly sliced radishes, green onions and carrots as well as spinach, squared off and julienned Japanese-style.

Mushroom bap (mushrooms over rice) shows up as part of a lunch combination with bulgogi and crisp, just-made tempura, but you can order it on its own at dinner -- a glorious tangle of four kinds of fresh mushrooms, lightly braised and served over that green tea rice. It's pure flavor -- best-quality mushrooms, deftly seasoned and cooked perfectly.

Sohoju salads are terrific. Crunchy salmon salad is a pyramided chiffonade of mixed greens with long logs of deep-fried salmon propped up to form a tepee. The salmon's crisp on the outside, moist on the inside, the crust a counterpoint to the acid in a delicious yuzu dressing.

Noodle dishes take their inspiration from a variety of cuisines. Jambalaya has no discernible Korean elements: It's an homage to New Orleans with pasta, sausage, shrimp and green bell pepper. Udon is Thai-style, but with twists: The dense, flavorful broth is wine-based, and the clams and seafood are surrounded by not only bok choy and onions but also chopped fresh tomatoes that look terrific against dark green arcs of zucchini. Momil bibim, a cold noodle dish, tosses thin Japanese buckwheat soba noodles and an array of fresh vegetables in a fabulous sweet-hot Korean chile paste.

Sides worth sampling

DON'T look for lots of small dishes of condiments or a slew of kimchis. But do sample the delicious coriander-spiked cucumber pickles and get a side dish of middling-hot house-made kimchi presented as small cabbage rolls.

There are several dishes designed as fun food with drinks. A grill-it-yourself option misfires; there's no advantage to heating semi-cooked meats and undressed vegetables on the mini-hibachis brought to the table.

But there are other great choices in the category, such as a big mixed stack of battered and fried onion and calamari rings. Served with mild curry mayo, the tender onions and chewy squid offer amusingly contrasting textures, and it's a great dish with beer. Other, mostly meaty, deep-fried snacks abound, but vegetarians aren't neglected; they can nibble on fried or pleasantly unctuous cold tofu or those wonderful mushrooms cooked in a foil packet that emits plumes of fragrant steam when opened.

As you linger -- and linger -- at Sohoju, you become aware that the background music changes and shifts from American standards of the '40s to contemporary Asian pop. The mood in the room varies too, from quiet and romantic to lively with lots of chatter and bursts of laughter as patrons come and go.

In the end, it looks as if those tourists and downtown condo-dwellers are the lucky ones. With beds nearby, they can stay for another -- and then maybe just one more -- round.



Location: 104 Japanese Village Plaza Mall (at 1st and Central streets), Los Angeles, (213) 621-2288.

Price: Combination lunches, $8.50; lunch salads, $8 to $9; lunch bulgogi beef, $10; lunch noodle dishes, $8 to $11; dinner salads, $11 to $13; dinner cold dishes, $5 to $15; dinner hot dishes, $5 to $15; dinner noodle dishes, $10 to $13.

Best dishes: Bulgogi beef, chicken jap chae, mushroom bap; crunchy salmon salad; momil bibim (soba with vegetables).

Details: Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner from 6 p.m. to midnight Tuesday through Saturday. Beer, wine, sake. All major credit cards. Lot and street parking.

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