Make us your home page

Search for soju leads to Tampa's Rice Market and Restaurant

A bottle of Chateul Soorok, a strong, apple-based wine that is listed as soju on the menu at Rice Restaurant and Lounge in Tampa.

Luis Santana/tbt*

A bottle of Chateul Soorok, a strong, apple-based wine that is listed as soju on the menu at Rice Restaurant and Lounge in Tampa.

I'm sitting in a booth at a Korean barbecue joint with my girlfriend, and we're both strict vegetarians.

There's no bar, per se, and the place closes at 9 p.m. So what exactly are we doing here?


Over Memorial Day weekend, I got to spend some time with a friend who was stationed in Korea for a while. He was explaining soju, which is a Korean spirit that's not dissimilar to vodka. In Korea, the alcohol content for this drink ranges from wine-like strength all the way to 90-proof and higher, the latter often leading to comical displays of public drunkenness, especially when the alcohol content is not clearly declared on the bottle.

It seemed odd that I'd never tried soju, but then again, it's not easy to find. Korean restaurants generally don't carry it, and even Kim Brothers Oriental Market in Tampa supposedly stopped carrying soju a few years ago. My local Korean market stocks a lot of Korean wines, but no soju. One restaurant in Town 'N Country, however, counted soju among its available drink options: Rice Market and Restaurant.

Formerly Rice Restaurant and Lounge, Rice recently split from an oversized restaurant into a combo restaurant and market, with a variety of Korean and other Asian groceries and specialty products for sale on one side, and a now much-smaller restaurant on the other. The former "lounge" appellation still applies, as the large center dining area faces a stage with a full karaoke setup, though this is generally for private parties or large group reservations.

The restaurant is known for its Korean barbecue, which involves cooking your meal at a grill built into your table. If you want to do this, the rear part of the restaurant is where you'll find the grill-equipped tables. We declined this option and took a booth on the opposite side. The setting was remarkably plain, as if we were a dining room in someone's home. It was modest but quite comfortable.

I asked our server about soju, and she explained that it comes in a small green bottle and is generally served neat, although you can mix it with cola if you'd like. I told her we'd take it neat, and she quickly returned with a thoroughly chilled bottle of Chateul Soorok, two shot glasses, and two glasses of water ("just in case"). We also ordered dolsot bibimbap, which came with several tasty sides, to chew on between shots of this mysterious drink.

First thoughts: not bad! It tasted like a mix between vodka and sake, with a faint green-apple flavor. An examination of the label revealed that, sure enough, this was an apple-based wine, rather than the barley, wheat, or rice base that is common in soju. Strangely, no mention of soju was made on the label — a requirement for soju sold in the U.S. — but in appearance and taste, this was close to my expectations. At just under 20 percent alcohol by volume, it was clearly designed as a soju surrogate, if nothing else, though I doubt it was distilled to that strength.

In addition to Chateul Soorok, Rice offers Hite Korean beer, and a wide variety of Korean wines. Although the maybe-soju is definitely recommended, so are these wines, which range from exotic fruit-infused versions (sansachun, made from Chinese hawthorn fruit; bok bun ja, made from Korean raspberries) to unusual, herbal concoctions like bek se ju — "100 years wine," made with ginseng and a handful of flavorful, supposedly medicinal herbs. These all come in small bottles, so you can try more than one with your meal, especially if you're sharing.

While I'm not sure if this visit allowed me to fully check soju off my list, it was a fun experience. The food and service was great, and there are a handful of Korean drinks that will no doubt be a mystery to most readers. Jumping into a menu made up mostly of completely unfamiliar drinks is always a blast.

Rice Market and Restaurant

7525 W Hillsborough Ave., Tampa. (813) 889-7766,

The vibe: A Korean restaurant and market that offers a range of Korean specialty wines and beer.

Food: Appetizers, $4.95-$21.95; entrées, $9.95-$23.95, with an all-you-can-eat BBQ special for $29.99; dessert, $2.99-$3.99.

Booze: Beer, $3-$4; wine, $6-$12.99.

Specialty: Rice stocks several domestic and import beers, but I'd recommend Hite, which is the most popular beer in Korea. It's not commonly found here outside of Korean markets, and while it's not exactly highbrow (compare it to other Asian adjunct lagers), it goes quite well with a big meal. If you want something completely different, try one of several Korean wines, all of which feature some variety of exotic Asian fruits or herbs. And then there's Chateul Soorok, a strong, apple-based wine that is listed as soju on the menu. While it may or may not truly fall into that category (soju is generally a distilled beverage made from barley, wheat or rice), it's definitely worth trying.

Hours: Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Search for soju leads to Tampa's Rice Market and Restaurant 06/05/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2014 3:33pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Spaceballs 2 could really happen, Mel Brooks says


    When Mel Brooks talks about a sequel to Spaceballs, ‘80s fans are tempted to politely smile and nod our heads. It’s a joke, we figure, because how can you possibly recapture the magic of the 1987 Star Wars spoof, especially since John Candy has passed away. 

  2. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for May 23


    Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons: The original Jersey boy himself has produced hits like Sherry, Walk Like A Man, Rag Doll, December '63 and Grease during his long-lasting career both solo and with the Four Seasons. 7:30 p.m., Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen-Booth Road, …

    Saint PAUL, MN - JULY 25: Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons perform at the 2010 Starkey Hearing Foundation 10th Annual "So the World May Hear" Gala at Saint Paul RiverCentre on July 25, 2010 in Saint Paul, Minnesota.   (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images for Starkey Hearing Foundation) *** Local Caption *** Frankie Valli
  3. Painted with suspense


    TAMPA — Sometimes a show comes along that does everything. It engages the senses on every level, tells a story that feels real and keeps you guessing to the end.

    Ned Averill-Snell, left, plays Latham and Landon Green is Stumpy, two working class painters working to convert a loft for a well-off couple.
  4. Review: ABC's 'Dirty Dancing' remake should be left in a corner


    It seems as if nothing is sacred anymore.

    Colt Prattes and Abigail Breslin in ABC's Dirty Dancing remake.
  5. Restaurant review: Tampa wine bar Cru Cellars also a worthy spot to indulge in sophisticated plates

    Food & Dining

    TAMPA -- One of the joys of writing about businesses in a particular market over a long period of time is watching some of them find their footing, mature and blossom. Cru Cellars has seriously come into its own.

    Citrus Panzanella, with blood orange, grapefruit, orange, fennel and crouton, at Cru Cellars in Tampa.