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.