Urban Seoul's Bulgogi Nation
It's impossible to talk about Urban Seoul without mentioning Roy Choi, the creator of Kogi, the pioneer of luxe loncheras, America's unofficial ambassador to everything hipster ethnic, last seen traipsing across LA's Koreatown on a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain's new CNN show. To not do so would be akin to discussing computers without bringing up Bill Gates or summer blockbusters without giving a nod to Steven Spielberg. Choi may not have invented the Korean taco (he has admitted to being inspired by a food blogger when he started the Korean-Mexi truck that sparked the gourmet-food-truck movement), but the man is, inarguably, the person who single-handedly showed the world that kimchi and cheese, tortillas and gochujang were always meant to play together.
The new Urban Seoul at Irvine's Diamond Jamboree uses these proven flavor combos as a baseline. It may never admit it borrows from Kogi's original source code, but there's an unspoken understanding it wouldn't be here if Choi didn't blaze the trail first. Its chef, Kacy Jun, who worked with Azmin Ghahreman at Sapphire and James Hamamori at Wasa Sushi, already knows the Korean-Mexican formula works and that all he has to do is have the confidence to just stand back and let it happen.
Yet Urban Seoul is more than just a very capable Kogi cover band. I would argue that if you could go back in time to 2009 and secretly swap out the tacos Kogi sold on the streets of LA with the ones that Urban Seoul serves now, Choi would still become the icon he is today—the food is that good. Though Urban Seoul's tacos are quite different from Kogi's (Jun uses lettuce instead of Kogi's signature tangy slaw), the point is the same: Bring the sugar-and-sesame-seed-oil-marinated goodness of tender bulgogi into the warm fold of a corn tortilla, and then witness the almost-magical reaction as the Mexican components mingle with the Korean ones.
Still, I prefer Urban Seoul's crispy pork-belly tacos over the bulgogi. The jagged scraps of what's essentially chopped up Filipino lechon kawale prove, yet again, that a piece of fatty pork can only get better when it's deep-fried. You get two per order, each drizzled with a gochujang-altered aioli and sprinkled with queso fresco. It's probably best to stick with the tacos and tortas than bother with the burgers or the sliders. The latter two fall victim to their bun—a Hawaiian-style roll that's always a bad idea for sliders, especially when the filling is this wet and includes marinated cucumbers you usually see as a panchan side dish. The bread is all but mashed flat, turning almost immediately into a damp, sauce-soaked, mealy mess.
You should also avoid the arepas, which do not resemble the light Venezuelan corn cakes they're supposed to emulate, but are rather leaden, crunchy hockey pucks so overly drenched with grease it's alarming. Get the quesadilla instead. In fact, do not go to Urban Seoul without ordering one—it's the greatest Korean-Mexi invention since Kogi's Blue Moon Mulita. Urban Seoul uses an actual kimchi pancake—a thin, vaguely spicy, delicate, crepe-like creation—in lieu of a flour tortilla, then stuffs it with juicy grilled chicken, mozzarella and Cheddar cheese. It's like a bizarre omelet, served with ambrosial kimchi sour cream so addictive I considered licking the plastic thimble it came in.
Everything at Urban Seoul, by the way, is served in paper baskets, cardboard bowls or plastic thimbles; you'd think the place was once a food truck that went brick-and-mortar. It seems to believe its cuisine isn't appropriate for actual china and metal flatware, and I would agree. I can't imagine having the loaded fries—which are just crinkle-cut potatoes draped in movie-theater cheese sauce, adorned with bits of Korean spicy pork, lightly pickled jalapeños, scallions and pickled onions—in a vessel I couldn't crumple up and throw away.
Urban Seoul also leans more Korean than Kogi. Though it's called Urban 3B, the bibimbap with a poached egg is still very proper bibimbap. Its rendition of tteokbokki, a common Korean street food of chewy-as-gum rice cakes stir-fried in a sweet-and-spicy hell sauce, has the rice cake flash-fried first. And the so-called chicken lollipops—kinder, gentler Buffalo wings—are still served with tart cubes of pickled daikon. But there may not be a better traditional dish here than the japchae mari: stir-fried glass noodles encased in deep-fried seaweed stogies that end up tasting like the Korean version of tater tots.
In the not-so-distant future, when such Korean dishes will be as familiar to Americans as pizza, places such as this would have led the way, would have been the mountain men of the scene. Proof that it's already happening: I sat next to a table of white retirees who'd brought a bottle of wine to pair with their Korean tacos.
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