Soju Think You Can Drink?
I blame the innocent-looking little metal teapot in which JuJu Pocha serves its yogurt soju. It obscures the amount you’ve had to drink and the amount there’s left to consume. Somewhere between sloshed and hammered, you lose count. Is this your fifth shot glass or the fiftelert;jf?
You forget faster when you’re in the company of Korean friends, folks who consider it bad manners to refuse another pour. In the realm of peer-pressure-induced alcohol binges, perhaps only the Irish can keep up with this crowd.
But at least Guinness fills you up to let you know you’ve had enough. Yogurt soju, on the other hand, is inordinately easy to drink. Make no mistake: This is hard liquor with a vodka potency. It’s only slightly more dangerous because it has been smoothed out by a tangy, dairy cloud of sweetness and innocence, tasting like something your kid brother might have in his juice box. Added to that is its impact on your appetite being as though it were chewing gum.
The role of the food, then, is to blunt the blow. That’s the function of everything on the menu at JuJu Pocha. These are dishes designed to anchor your stomach with something solid and rich. The corn cheese is just as it sounds: corn nibblets suspended in a fondue lake of melted cheese—something I’ll probably never get used to. There are dried roasted squid and fried chicken wings with pickled radish cubes. All are nibbles in a subclass of Korean cuisine called anju—food to be consumed when you go out drinking.
Others could be construed as products of drunkenness themselves. Something called tukgalbi turns out to be a Frisbee-sized hamburger patty embedded with bits of diced onions, garlic and carrots that’s been zigzagged all over with an A1-like tangy brown sauce. Every bite begs for a sesame-seed bun, rice and more yogurt soju. The fragrant burps it later produces will keep vampires and other creatures of the night at bay—or at least until you head home when the restaurant closes at 2 a.m.
Cheese gyeran mali—an omelet that literally translates as “egg roll” since it is rolled up into a log, then cut up into chopstick-friendly wheels—has what seems like Cheez Whiz oozing out of the middle and eats like a foreshadowing of what you’ll have for breakfast. It’s around then that JuJu Pocha’s “casual Korean cuisine” subtitle starts making sense.
This isn’t to say you won’t find Korean grub with which you are already familiar. Kalbi (Korean barbecued short rib) and soondubus (soft tofu soup) are among the most popular items in the peninsula’s culinary repertoire. Both can be had in moderately priced combos, with the ribs sizzling on a bed of onions and the soup bubbling in a cauldron.
Before the place became JuJu Pocha, it was called Goong, and before that, Irvine Tofu House. Both served these staples. JuJu Pocha’s kalbi might as well be a carbon copy of the past tenants. Their soondubu, though, is almost porridge-like. It’s thicker and less soupy than the usual. The raw egg you crack into it gets swallowed up by the brew, but it never fully cooks, probably because it becomes insulated by an excess of tofu curds.
Grilled pike mackerel comes with nothing more than lemon. This one should only be ordered if you’re the kind of drunk who doesn’t get squeamish. The ramrod-straight fish seems to not have been gutted (as it is often prepared), leaving the liquefied innards to add more funk to an already-fishy fish.
An easier dish to keep down would be the tuna tataki sashimi: thick slices of tuna, its outsides kissed with a light sear, everything else raw, arranged like spokes of a wagon wheel and served with soy sauce and wasabi for dipping.
Perhaps what you require is something even more basic—something recognized the world over as an alcohol sponge: pork. The steamed-pork dish called bossam is typical Korean bar fodder. But the tonkatsu, a golden-breaded pork cutlet so gigantic it has its own gravity well, will be most effective. If you’ve seen a bigger, more ridiculous piece of pork, you were in Washington, D.C. Never mind that it’s bland and lacking in flavor. The last thing you’ll need is more salt to dehydrate you.
And when that teapot pours its final drop, someone will inevitably go back to the short list of libations and order up one of Korea’s indigenous beers (Hite and OB), a sweet raspberry wine called bokbunja, or more sojus, this time straight from the bottle. Oh, yes, you are going to need more food.
JuJu Pocha, 14775 Jeffrey Rd., Ste. B, Irvine, (949) 786-2412. Open daily, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Entrées, $5-$20; soju cocktails, $10.99; beer, $3.99-$12.99.
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