The sign hanging above the entrance to Soho proudly announces: “Always healthy and good Korean foods are served!” And once inside, just in case the first enthusiastic greeting wasn’t enough of an enticement, perusers of the menu are implored to “ENJOY FREE WiFi!!!!”
Whether providing a delicious meal or the Internet, New Haven’s newest Korean restaurant is clearly excited to serve its clientele.
The restaurant’s extreme friendliness translates to the entire dining experience, which might be categorized as pleasantly casual. The restaurant’s interior, clean and agreeable but certainly nothing fancy, helps establish this atmosphere right away. High tables and stools in the main room give off a vaguely luncheonette feel — a vibe that’s further augmented by the boppy ’50s music playing quietly in the background, a silly but welcome change from the typical restaurant Muzak.
The menu, though more than adequate, is also far from sophisticated. Even people who have never eaten at a Korean restaurant before may be surprised at how many of the items seem familiar, or at least comfortingly approachable. For example, the appetizer options consist of your basic shrimp, crab, or pork and chicken dumplings ($5.50 for each order of eight). Customers may also recognize the choice of noodle soups, either udon or ramyon (i.e., ramen). A simple soup of thick noodles, fried tofu, fish cake and broth, the udon ($7.99 for lunch; $9.99 for dinner) is a surprising standout. The remainder of the menu comprises 10 main courses, ranging from the ubiquitous chicken teriyaki to the more exotic “yook-gae-jang” (a spicy soup of beef, seaweed, leeks and bean sprouts) and nine types of Japanese-style sushi rolls ($5.50/$6.50), mostly involving imitation crab meat.
Though many of Soho’s offerings may be welcoming to those unfamiliar with Korean cuisine, that shouldn’t encourage eaters to shy away from the unusual — a dish called “o-jing-o-bok-eum” ($11.99/$13.99), a somewhat spicy stew of cuttlefish (similar to squid) and onions, was wonderfully flavorful and satisfying without intimidating the taste buds. More standard Korean dishes were perfectly good if not extraordinary. The bibimbob ($9.95/$13.95), a classic preparation of rice, mixed vegetables, beef and a fried egg, is generally pretty difficult to get wrong. This crowd-pleasing dish is also one of the few that can be modified for vegetarians. A stir-fried vermicelli dish called jobchae ($9.95/$13.95) was perfectly decent, though it didn’t contain much in the way of vegetables or miniscule pieces of sliced beef as advertised on the menu, and was also slightly oily.
In addition to the main courses, the restaurant offers complimentary miso soup, rice and small bowls of kim chi (pickled cabbage), pickled daikon, pickled radish and what I suspect were fermented black beans — delicious and made in-house. We also received an eggy Korean pancake, which could just as easily have been called a flat omelet, which tasted very, very fried. There is no dessert menu, but a sliced orange is provided at the end of the meal.
It’s unclear what exactly qualifies as “Soho” about this decidedly unpretentious restaurant. Google Maps debunked the theory that its location on the corner of Orange and Elm streets might be south of Ho(we) Street, which doesn’t even run east-west to begin with. Yet its utter lack of New York snobbery, though it belies the restaurant’s name, is actually the best thing about the restaurant — it may not be a five-star joint or a bastion of gourmet cuisine, but its welcoming atmosphere and friendly service provide equally powerful incentives to return. Maybe even with a laptop.