Restaurant Reviews

The New Korean Fusion

Terry Song can't seem to get a break in real estate. When he opened Goghee To Go on Inwood Road with wife Janice in 2010, he knew homeless people were likely to congregate at the nearby liquor store. What he wasn't prepared for was the panhandling that would occur while his customers waited in the drive-thru line to place their orders.

Song had taken over a small stand-alone building that used to hold a Burguesa, hoping to capitalize on the growing Korean-taco craze that had started in Southern California in 2008 and gone on to take the entire country by storm.

His unique take on Korean fusion caught on quickly. In addition to tacos, Goghee dropped spicy pork on nachos and stuffed it into burrito shells. D Magazine called Goghee a ballsy mash-up of Korean barbecue and Mexican street food, and the wait at the drive-thru jumped to more than an hour during the lunch rush — a long time to endure repeated requests for spare change.

Still, Korean tacos were in demand, and Song's kitchen was pushed to the brink. He was already looking for a new location when UT Southwestern forced his hand. They made a push to buy the land under his taco hut and eventually won. Now the Burguesa-turned-taco-shop is razed to the ground.

Goghee lives on, but the "To Go" has been dropped. The Songs ended up in another stand-alone building in another quirky location. Now instead of liquor stores and homeless, the dynamics of transportation "progress" constantly shape their surroundings. On one day an arc of orange cones could gracefully guide you into their small back-facing parking lot, and on another the cones could be gone. Meanwhile, traffic noise and construction work on nearby Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway are a constant.

While sales at the new location have yet to match their original numbers, this week's business is better than last, which is better than the week before, according to Song.

Ben and Jon Lee had no idea where they were headed when they opened their first LA Burger in a small strip mall in Irving. The two brothers had just gotten out of the Air Force, were single and had lot of free time on their hands. Jumping into the restaurant business seemed like a perfect idea.

The Lees had read about Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go, a retrofitted catering truck that sold corn tortillas stuffed with Korean-style short ribs called kalbi on the streets of Southern California. Kogi set off a national food trend that expanded at an unprecedented rate as Korean taco restaurants popped up in several cities. Each new restaurant offered another variation on the original theme, and the Lee brothers were no different; they decided to push things in a more American direction.

They scrapped initial restaurant names like Seoul Food or Seoul Good because they wanted to court a broader customer base. Kogi, Goghee and Kor-BQ, a Korean taco joint in Plano widely regarded as the first to open in the Dallas area, evoke little in the typical non-Asian dining set. LA Burger, on the other hand, is written in a language everyone understands.

Choosing a familiar name paid off. White customers significantly outpace Korean customers at their burger restaurant that features kimchi — a spicy, fermented cabbage — and spicy grilled beef called bulgogi. Those customers have been adventurous, too. Safety items on the menu like burgers topped with barbecue sauce and onion rings sit idle compared with a "K-Town" burger that comes topped with traditional Korean ingredients, suggesting that LA Burger is expanding palates and introducing new flavors to customers.

The Korean burger business is good. They opened a second location in Carrollton this year.

Ssham BBQ is growing as well. Andy Park's first Korean taco food truck hit the streets of Dallas in June 2011. Park left his job in commercial signage to follow in his family's footsteps. He's now a third-generation restaurateur and responsible for one of the best food trucks in the city.

His sleek, black-skinned vehicle gathered an instant following selling Korean tacos, hot dogs topped with Korean grilled meats and french fries heaped with kimchi and cheese. Four months after opening he took on his partner, Oh Kwon. Now a second Ssahm food truck clad in fire-engine red rolls the streets of Dallas.

While all of these restaurants have put their own spin on Korean fusion, the tastes are similar. Meats balance savory flavors with sweetness derived from sugar and pureed fruits like Asian pear. Heat from chiles is a consistent element as is the pungent bite of sour, fermented cabbage, which is featured on what might be the greatest dish to emerge from the Korean-meets-American cuisine: kimchi french fries.

While Goghee and LA Burger make use of frozen precut fries, Ssahm BBQ cuts fresh potatoes daily for their dish, easily making theirs the best version I've found in Dallas. Their version takes familiar fried spuds served in a small cardboard tray and tops them with seemingly everything at the food truck's disposal. In addition to kimchi, melted cheese and mayo spiked with chili heat lend even more body to already fatty fries. Cilantro and onions add freshness and crunch, but piling on your choice of barbecued meat (pork always seems the best) puts this dish firmly in heart attack territory.

If you're a fan of chili-cheese fries, the ubiquitous bar food classic will never seem the same again. In fact, they're comparatively boring. No wonder these new Korean-fusion restaurants have enjoyed such robust business. Their menus are changing how we look at our most familiar dishes.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz