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Review: Chop Chop Shop needs refinement, but its Korean fusion flavors are worth seeking out

Pork belly with orange sauce is accompanied by soba noodles, Russian pickled mushrooms, purple slaw and Viet-style pickled carrot threads.
Published Aug. 17, 2015

TAMPA

Last month I wrote about a new trend in the food truck business. Folks are taking the wheels off, starting with a truck in order to pave the way for a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Steve Sera and his wife, Olivia, were among the examples I gave. On June 27 they debuted Chop Chop Shop in Seminole Heights after having built a following with their Korean-fusion build-a-bowl truck called Kind Grinds.

After a couple of recent dinners, it has left me thinking about the difference between the two in terms of customer expectations.

Chop Chop Shop is still in its infancy, a very DIY-fun little red box set in what used to be a bare-bones barbecue joint. The hours continue to be in flux as they tinker with which days work best for lunch and whether Sunday to Tuesday are viable for dinner (eh, August and September are rough; maybe relaunch Tuesdays in October).

A hand-lettered menu on one wall gives you the drill: You pick a base (white rice, buckwheat soba noodles) then a sauce or style, then a protein, and then a standard side (some sides and proteins are a bit extra). Also, there are burgers, some of them with Korean or Brazilian stylings. Tell the guy at the counter what you want and he writes it down on an old-timey ordering pad, but often with furrowed brow and a lot of sighing, like your extra Russian pickled mushrooms could push him over the edge. At that point the open kitchen gets sizzling with motion and heat. You find a table in the tiny dining room and a few minutes later a woman with a train conductor's booming voice calls your name. Order up.

This is how their food truck worked. But with a sit-down restaurant, especially one with chopsticks and a lot of sauciness, you need someone to clean the tables between guests. This is a real shoestring dining room, but it suffered on both my visits by being a little dirty and having a bus-your-own-table trash can open and a little ripe in one corner of the room.

They've overcome an HVAC problem and still seem to be grappling with venting issues, but Chop Chop Shop is sending out enough gutsy and novel food that a bit of discomfort should be endured.

I was most enthusiastic about a dish called the Karage bowl ($9 with rice and no upgrades), lengths of crispy Japanese twice-fried chicken marinated in soy, sweet rice wine and roasted sesame and drizzled with a sweet, salty sauce, set atop a generous mound of white rice and then accessorized by "mean greens," a tangle of thick-stemmed Chinese water spinach drizzled with a black sesame sauce, plus a couple of half moons of pickled daikon. I was nearly as smitten by a simple bowl of rice topped with ginger roasted pulled pork and grilled chicken, the pork satisfying crunchy-edged strings, the chicken moist and bouncy, accompanied by some spunky purple slaw and a ramekin of thin soy-based Korean barbecue sauce ($10).

Thus far there are no seafood and no vegetarian entrees beyond an assemblage of side veggies, most of which are pickled — pickled jalapenos, Vietnamese-style pickled carrot and clove-scented pickled brown enoki mushrooms — which together yields an overly acidic finished dish to my way of thinking. A tofu or salmon option might accommodate a wider range of diners.

Burgers are a third of a pound, plenty big, and topped with some sumptuous doodads, the best of which is the Seoul burger ($8; add $3 if you want a pile of skin-on fries with that) with seared pork belly, grilled kimchi, pickled jalapenos and a drizzle of that sweet-salty sauce (what they call Shop Sauce, which makes a frequent showing on the short menu). I'm sure this is the dish that built the Kind Grinds rep — the Tampa area has been so starved for Korean or Korean fusion flavors, that combination of fermenty-funk, spicy and sweet not found in other adjacent Asian cuisines.

I'm hoping Chop Chop's beverage options will expand. For now it's traditional sodas and a handful of Asian sodas. Even without a liquor license I think tea and other nonalcoholic beverages would better complement the food, which tends to have a lot of sweetness to it.

Food truck audiences like boho, maybe even a little grunge — it's part of what makes a truck feel authentic. But in a standing restaurant, service details need to be more articulated and grunge should never apply to table surfaces. Still, the Seras are working with enough good flavors and dynamic texture juxtapositions that Seminole Heights residents seem already to have embraced their newest brick-and-mortar Shop.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

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