Desert Companion

The dish: Seoul of the southwest

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Goong Korean BBQ
Photography by Sabin Orr

Sizzle and spice: Goong Korean BBQ

A lively cluster of neighboring eateries are recreating the feel and flavors of South Korea

Somewhere over on Rainbow, troubles melt like soju lemon drops — or, if you’re a true Korean food aficionado, peach-flavored magkeolli. Think of it as the frat-boy hunch punch of Seoul. Milky rice wine, mixed with bottled fruit juice, is ladled from a communal bowl to fuel the after-work crowd and late-night revelers between bites of crispy haemul pajeon (seafood and scallion pancakes). Koreans consider it an ideal food and beverage pairing on stormy days — the sound of sizzling batter mimicking the musical pitter-patter of raindrops — and Soyo restaurant nails both to a tee.

Support comes from

It used to be that Spring Mountain Road was our city’s default destination for a decent Asian meal. But over the past 10 years, the Southwest has slowly established itself as an alternative to Chinatown. A one-block stretch of Rainbow Boulevard alone (between Robindale Road and Windmill Lane) is currently home to a dozen Asian restaurants, many of which successfully recreate the dining scene in Seoul.

David Sim deserves most of the credit. An émigré of Incheon, South Korea, the 39-year-old moved to the U.S. as a teenager, living with his uncle and grandparents to attend high school in Los Angeles. In 2007, armed with a degree in hotel management from UNLV, he opened Oyshi, a consistently crowded all-you-can-eat sushi joint. While the gluttonous concept (not to mention cream cheese-slathered rolls) is of American provenance, guests can find traces of Korea on the menu. Skip the imitation crab rolls for an order of dwaejibulgolgi, a pork dish seasoned with a face-melting red chili paste, or soy-marinated rib eye, both served on searing-hot cast-iron platters.

Dolsot bibimbop at Soyo Korean Barstraunt

Dolsot bibimbop at Soyo Korean Barstraunt

Three years later, yearning for more than the occasional taste of home, Sim opened Soyo a few doors down. The self-described “barstaurant” is modeled after Korean pojangmachas. The makeshift bars dot the streets of Korea, serving beer and dirt-cheap snacks under plastic tents. Soyo, with its outdoor patio, blaring K-pop tunes and late-night hours, is a more sanitized version of the real thing. However, the menu is anything but Westernized. Students and families gather here in groups to share platters of gamey soon dae (blood sausage) and bubbling hot pots.

A popular choice is budae jigae, otherwise known as “Army base stew.” Born out of necessity, it was invented using Army rations during the Korean War to feed starving civilians. Hot dogs, Spam, instant ramen, and melted slices of American cheese are cooked in a cauldron of kimchi broth for a communal dish that would send any of today’s health nuts into a tailspin. It’s an acquired taste for sure, but Koreans swear by it as a proper hangover cure.

“Most Korean restaurants in the States are sit-down barbecue places but I wanted to bring diners a different experience,” says Sim. “There is more to Korean cuisine. Soups, small plates, tteokbokki (rice cakes) … authentic dishes with few places in Vegas to find them.”

Goog raw platter sides

Goog Korean BBQ raw platter sides

The Korean catalyst

Sim’s success may have been a catalyst for other Korean entrepreneurs to set up shop in the neighborhood. Across the street is Serenade, a café with a decidedly Asian vibe. The interior — a hodgepodge of concrete, exposed brick, and hardwood — screams of modern-day Seoul, and the menu is what one would find in the city’s countless coffee shops. The focus is on espresso drinks (sorry, no drip coffee here) and dainty pastries with a special side menu of Asian treats. Their honey toast, an over-the-top Japanese dessert made by slathering a cinder block of bread in butter and sugar—and then stuffing it with ice cream (Because why not? You’re already halfway to diabetes) — has a gained a cult following. It’s also good for sustaining customers through their all-nighters.

“We get a lot of Ph.D. and doctorate students who come here to study,” explains server Jae Min Lee. “When you keep late hours, Spring Mountain Road can be a little dangerous.”

Soyo's spicy noodles

Soyo's spicy noodles

And why drive to Spring Mountain when South Rainbow spots such as Doh Korean BBQ give Chinatown restaurants a run for their money? Located next to Serenade, the six-month-old restaurant is a sister to Chinatown’s Tofu Hut and Doh Sushi. It’s also the first in the neighborhood where guests can grill meat at communal tables. Proteins include standard cuts like paper-thin slices of brisket and tongue, as well as fancier options (red wine-marinated pork belly.)

Despite his original vision for Soyo as a barbecue alternative, Sim is also getting in the game. This past March he expanded his mini-empire with Goong Korean BBQ. The 150-seat restaurant sets the standard for grill-it-yourself concepts, putting equal emphasis on food and atmosphere. Guests can opt for traditional Korean seating on the floor or tuck into a standard booth. Just like Doh, the all-you-can-eat menu mixes authentic low cuts (pork jowl) with high-end options (wagyu sirloin).

And there is still more to come. This month marks the arrival of Bonchon, a popular fried chicken chain that puts the Colonel and Popeye’s to shame. The American classic is a staple at Korean hofs, or pubs, where it’s paired with pitchers of icy beer.

Could the Southwest establish itself as a rival to the Koreatowns of Los Angeles and New York? The area’s suburban strip mall landscape isn’t necessarily conducive to it, but Sim is optimistic.

“Las Vegas needs more good Korean food,” he says. “Compared to L.A. and New York? They have more options, but our city has a growing Asian population so hopefully we’ll see more restaurants open.

“When we chose the Southwest, it was still developing and I figured it would be a good place for opportunity. Everyone said running a restaurant is hard, but I never thought it would be this hard. But all business is a gamble, right?”

It’s the American dream, an immigrant work ethic, and a dash of Las Vegas attitude rolled into one. And with other restaurateurs following suit, the neighborhood is finally swelling with infinite options to satisfy our Asian food fix. I’ll raise a glass of magkeolli to that. 

 

Doh

7920 S. Rainbow Blvd. #105

702-538-7887

 

Goong

7729 S. Rainbow Blvd. #5

702-979-9118

 

Oyshi

7775 S. Rainbow Blvd. #145

702-646-9744, oyshilv.com

 

Serenade

7920 S. Rainbow Blvd. #100

702-466-0616

 

Soyo

7775 S. Rainbow Blvd. #105

702-897-7696, soyolv.com

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