I just got back from a trip to South Korea, and despite enjoying a wide variety of beer, makgeolli (a popular rice wine) and Korean food, I neglected to indulge in two major icons of Korean nightlife: soju and karaoke.
Karaoke, imported to Korea from Japan in the '80s and known locally as noraebong, is a hugely popular Korean pastime. Korean-style karaoke is not performed in front of strangers in a bar setting, but rather in private rooms, where the only people subjected to your off-key wailing are your friends.
Soju is Korea's favorite alcoholic beverage: a distilled spirit generally made from rice, barley or tapioca, and consumed from little shot glasses. Soju ranges widely in strength, but most varieties are around 20 percent alcohol by volume and taste like a mildly fruity, watered-down vodka.
I rectified my negligence with a visit Tampa Karaoke VIP, a spruced-up successor to the original Tampa Karaoke, formerly of South Tampa. Although the names are the same, Tampa Karaoke VIP is under different management. I won't pretend that I'm a big karaoke fan — my musical abilities are strictly of the non-vocal variety — but I've always had a great time at the old Tampa Karaoke and was excited to see what the VIP version was all about.
From the front, it seems impossible that Tampa Karaoke VIP can hold the kind of groups that it says it can. It looks tiny! Yet, rooms are available for groups of up to 25 at a time. The typical room seats up to 10 and goes for $20 an hour (half off during happy hour, which is from 7 to either 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., depending on which day you go). There's a lounge just inside the entrance, which features a nice, colorfully lit bar and lounge sofas to the side, where you can wait for your entire group to arrive. K-pop music videos on the flat-screen give you a hint of what to expect once you get your room.
The interior is deceptively deep, with no shortage of rooms. The VIP part of the experience is immediately apparent. Whereas the old Tampa Karaoke was a bare-bones operation, Tampa Karaoke VIP is extra polished. The staff is decked out in all black, the lighting in the lounge and room corridors has a nightclub feel, and each room has a cool, frosted glass door, numbered and branded with the Tampa Karaoke VIP logo.
Inside the rooms are a U-shaped bench, walls painted with motifs and patterns unique to each room, a large table in the center, and of course, karaoke gear: two wireless mics, a remote, songbooks, a flat-screen and a karaoke machine loaded with a ton of K-pop, as well as tunes in Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Tagalog, Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese and English. A service button is placed near the door, which brings a server right to your room. VIP, indeed!
The sound quality is excellent — far better than you'll find in a bar karaoke setting — and the music and mic volumes are individually adjustable, so you can tweak it however you'd like. The English song selection is, well, interesting. Expect some unusual selections, as well as some odd yet awesome computer-generated backing music. And my favorite part: the surreal juxtaposition between the looping background video and the music. The video features a variety of nature footage, B-roll of cityscapes, and sporting activities like downhill skiing. It's as weird as it is fun: very.
There are a few beers on draft and in bottles, including the Korean beer Hite. Although South Korea has many quality microbreweries, the big guys like Hite and Cass are all you're going to find in the United States.
There are also some wines and sakes, including a full line of products from popular American sake brewer TY KU, which are featured prominently in the house cocktail selection. These cocktails are served in bulbous margarita glasses, with a fruit garnish dropped to the bottom.
And yes, there's soju. The soju of choice here is Chateul Soorok, an apple-based soju that seems to be the only brand found in the bay area. You can drink this stuff neat (even though it comes in a shot glass, soju is usually sipped), or you can order one of the specialty soju cocktails, which come in a half-liter pitcher with a couple of glasses to serve it from. Check the specials board for the current flavors.
I really loved the old Tampa Karaoke, but the level of upgrade that Tampa Karaoke VIP represents goes far beyond three letters tacked onto the end. This might just be the ultimate party spot for small and medium groups who aren't afraid to down some soju, pick up a microphone and belt out some real ear-splitters.
Whether you're a regular bar crooner or someone who could never get in front of a mic otherwise, I strongly recommend giving Tampa Karaoke VIP a try.
— [email protected]; @WordsWithJG.