Soju is not Pittsburgh’s first Korean restaurant, but when it opened two years ago, owner Simon Chough knew he wanted to take a different approach than the traditional, longstanding eateries like Golden Pig and Sushi Kim. With the goal of exposing traditional dishes to unfamiliar eaters, he designed a menu that combined his grandmother's recipes, their later Americanized versions, and for a shot of accessible sweetness, Hawaiian cuisine. The resulting menu is an exciting mix of flavor profiles ranging from nori French fries to poke bowls.
The hardest part of dining at Soju is having to resist ordering one of everything on the menu. It’s an absolutely enticing bill of plates. To start, there’s a savory Korean pancake, killer tofu (tossed in a pineapple glaze), and Korean “poutine” topped with curry gravy and tofu instead of cheese curds. The entree list is just as enticing, with Korean grilled meats, bibimbap, and pineapple salmon.
I managed to narrow my order down to a few items, starting with gimbap (bibimbap rolled into sushi). Chough described the dish as “all the food groups in one bite,” with a satisfying taste-texture combination. Mondu, Korean dumplings, were another delightful starter, the small pockets packed with pork and pan-fried in triangles.
A trio of Korean grilled meats — bulgogi (beef), dwaejibulgogi (pork), and kalbi (beef short ribs) — followed my first course, fanned out around a pile of white rice. Out of the trio, the short ribs were my favorite, just fatty enough to keep the meat tender. Banchan, a collection of small side dishes often served with Korean cuisine (during my visit, pickled vegetables), balanced out the meat-heavy plate.
Chough’s katsu curry, however, was easily the best dish on the table.
It consisted of a heavy brown curry covering rice, potatoes, carrots, and panko-breaded chicken. The flavor was incomparable to any other curry: sweet, thick, and packed with a myriad of strong spices. The chicken was almost too good to be true, panko adding a perfect crunch to the stew-like plate. At the end of each bite, my lips were burning from heat, but an enjoyable, sinus-clearing kind of burn.
Chough says some characterizations of Korean food as insulated — Anthony Bourdain said in 2016 that historically, "it was for other Koreans and they really didn't dumb it down" — are incomplete.
“If you package it right,” he says, “there’s a lot of Korean food people would enjoy.”
And that’s why if you like what you eat at his restaurant, Chough is quick to recommend Nak Won Garden, Golden Pig, and other Korean restaurants in the city. Soju might not be most traditional, but it’s a great — and delicious — stepping stone for the curious.
Fluffy, homemade cheesecake. It’s the perfect end to any meal.
2. Waikiki Spam Jam
Don’t just eat your Spam, drink it! Try the spam-washed mezcal from an actual can of Spam.
The restaurant’s namesake drink is all over their menu. Grab a bottle or a shot; either way, don’t miss out on this Korean distilled spirit.