If Kogi can make a fortune pairing kimchi and tortillas, why not spaghetti and ssam? Howard Gordon, an ex-Cheesecake Factory vice president and his Korean fiancee, Jenny Lee, hope to do just that with their new Irvine restaurant, Itriya Cafe. But drawing parallels between Kogi and Itriya is a bit disingenuous, as the only thing they have in common is a Korean element and the tendency to pair diametrically opposed foodstuffs. In every other way, the two are nothing alike.
When Roy Choi started cooking for Kogi, he didn't have a clue what it was about to unleash on the world; the whole idea began as nothing more than a lark. Itriya Cafe, on the other hand, shines of corporate polish and planning. The entire restaurant seems strategized down to the nitty gritty. Everything from the restroom fixtures to the trademarks Gordon has put on at least two of his dishes shows a businessman's sense of purpose. Even before Itriya served its first customer, Gordon had ambitions to expand to at least four more locations in the next few years.
But the most important difference is that compared to Kogi, Itriya seems more cautious as it commingles the Asian with the European. On the menu, the ssam is nowhere near the spaghetti, categorized under a list called “tapas,” which borrows the Spanish term since ssam can't exactly be considered an appetizer.
On this, Itriya is right. Ssam isn't an appetizer; it's its own class of food. Still, when you eat Korean barbecue or the fatty pork bender called bo ssam, ssam isn't so much a dish as it is an action. Wrapping whatever meat or delectable thing in lettuce or some other medium could be considered ssam. Itriya, on the other hand, removes the DIY aspect and approaches ssam as though it were a taco, the lettuce playing tortilla to a pre-assembled pile of toppings that includes a finger of rice, a sesame leaf, peppers, seaweed and a protein of your choice. The spicy pork asserts itself better over the barbecue short rib or the tofu, which can easily get lost in the jumble of ingredients. But the quibble you'll hear most often about these two-bite morsels is the nearly $4 price tag.
Another tapa, the trademarked Taconini, takes the taco-like execution of the ssam and offers you an actual taco made with a proprietary tortilla-like disc that's somewhere between a French crepe and Indian naan. Stuffed with similar protein options as the ssam, a Taconini is a dollar more costly and meant to be consumed by one person. If you're looking for an appetizer to share, opt instead for the slightly undersalted but greaseless fried baby calamari or the shrimp tempura, which are tempura in name only, as the golden batter has more in common with Long John Silver's than anything Japanese.
Spaghetti is used as the default pasta for all noodle dishes, whether it's soup- or sauce-based. A plate with meatballs twirls like the best rendition of the household staple, the well-seasoned meat Ping-Pong-sized and the marinara peppy, featuring just the right amount of a tomato's freshness. Itriya's best spaghetti dish has to be the Korean black bean, which hues close to its jajangmyeon roots, darkly lubed in its funky fermentedness and ultimately successful—though it could use a little more salt. The same can't be said of the spicy beef noodle, in which the spaghetti swims in a watered-down broth in need of oomph and where braised, sliced beef is sapped of its unctuousness and the radish is cooked to mush. Yet even that's better than the chicken alfredo, glopped with a flavorless white paste and topped by a dry plank of grilled chicken that belonged somewhere else.
There's a list of flatbread pizzas that includes a so-called Memphis barbecue chicken in its roster; it's a tender-crusted oblong pie served on a cutting board that takes its flavor cues from the barbecue-chicken pies at California Pizza Kitchen (CPK), which long ago pioneered the now-ubiquitous dish that also seamlessly melded two cultures. But I'm not sure if Itriya will ever be as successful as CPK, or become a Korean-food ambassador the likes of the trailblazing Kogi. It certainly aspires to do both, even as the restaurant feels like a collection of the things the owners seem to be fond of. A room-sized photo mural of the Joshua Tree desert features images of flying plates of spaghetti inexplicably spliced into the scene. For dessert, you can have a chocolate egg cream or a frozen hot chocolate, for no apparent reason other than just because.
From the beverage bar, an intriguing drink is made from watermelon, yuzu and cilantro and was remarkably refreshing, perhaps the most exciting thing I had there. Might I suggest a trademark or patent protection for this one, too?
This review appeared in print as “Ssam Like It Hot: Can an ex-Cheesecake Factory executive sell Italian and Korean food under one roof at Itriya Cafe?”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.