Beyond Barbecue

Soyo showcases the true potential of Korean cuisine

Photo by Anthony MairMakkoli

Photo by Anthony MairFried chicken

Photo by Anthony MairPan’chan

Korean taco trucks are hot in the West. That we know. But is Korean food the next big thing? It might be, if restaurants like Soyo succeed and proliferate.

This rustic cuisine has been around in Vegas since I came here more than 10 years ago, but it has been largely limited to Korean barbecue, a form of cooking often done at the table, on built-in braziers.

What’s going down at Soyo is different.

It bills itself as a “bar-staurant,” a homey place with muted colors, where you sit in booths carved cannily into the walls, like miniature alcoves, or on the main dining room floor—a bare one, natch.

Here, cooking is done in the kitchen, and it’s the best Korean food ever served in this city. Take the potato pancakes, for instance, made from freshly grated spuds. They reminded me so much of the ones made by my Yiddishe grandma, I almost had to wipe my eyes as I ate them.

The menu is composed of four sections: soup, tapas, entrées and casseroles. No matter where you begin, you’ll get a variety of pan’chan, side dishes of pickled or marinated vegetables. These might be yellow bean sprouts, cut radish, cooked spinach or the dreaded kimchi, stinky fermented cabbage. One lunch I was served a little dish of crazy-good stewed beef, in man-size chunks. It’s the first time I’ve gotten meat as a complimentary side dish in a Korean restaurant.

I was even more surprised by the beverage options. First, my friends and I were brought a complimentary runner’s water bottle filled with iced barley tea, a healthy refresher. Then we splurged on makkoli, a pearly white, unfiltered rice wine ladled from a huge earthenware bowl.

The tapas menu is a logical place to start. Try the kimchi pancake, a thin crepe with a persistent crunch, laced with enough of the notorious cabbage to stain it red from the chili the cabbage is fermented in. It’s subtly flavored, so a few bites won’t be enough. I recommend the fried whole chicken to share as its foil. Between those two dishes, the sides and some steamed rice, you’ve got quite a lunch.

Fried dumplings—manju in Korean—are like pot stickers, only bigger and meatier. I love the menu’s Korean sausage, but be wary if the sight of blood makes you squeamish. This is classic blood sausage, with a filling based on rice, meat and pork blood. If you have the soft hot tofu, suspend your belief about tofu in Japanese restaurants. This version is a silky pudding, with the texture of crème brûlée.

Korean soups are generally faintly red from chili as well. Korea is a cold country, and the cuisine relies on red chili to heat the body. Hot and spicy vegetable and shredded beef soup is a soul-satisfying, fiery hotpot that’s not for the faint of heart. And they aren’t kidding around when they say the kimchi and pork in a spicy soup (the way it reads on the menu) is “spicy.”

And there are hearty entrées such as grilled mackerel, kimchi fried rice, and sweet and spicy marinated pork, the last served bubbling in a mini-cauldron with more of that lethal red sauce. If you insist, you can even get galbi, the sesame oil and garlic grilled beef short ribs that are the mainstay of so many Korean restaurants in this city.

So what if Soyo’s is the best galbi in town? You can eat that stuff anywhere.

Suggested Next Read

A Taste for the Understated

Neighborhood Epicurean

A Taste for the Understated

By Michael T. Toole

Photo by Anthony MairBetty McIntosh serves fresh coffee at the Omlette House. Photo by Anthony MairThe Omlet House.