We arrived at Koreatown’s Pocha 32 before 5:30 p.m. on a Friday night. Yelp had given me a vague idea of Pocha’s popularity, and I suggested to my friend that we arrive early. After walking through the main door and up the steep stairs, we came upon another door that opened into the restaurant. Pocha’s ceiling was covered in green nets with white string lights and small hanging metal tins—reminiscent of certain Van Gogh paintings. The walls were all green, plastered with hundreds of little hand written notes and mementos from patrons.
We were seated at the third table of what looked to be a total of twenty—the other seventeen were empty. Though we browsed the menu, which seemed to have many enticing choices, we came to share the famed squid soondae. I also ordered the golbaengi muchim for myself.
The golbaengi muchim arrived first. The spicy sea snail salad was held together by a red pepper sauce
more intense in flavor than Sambal Oelek sauce. This heat was further enhanced by the slices of seeded green peppers in the salad, which was heavy with bok choy and scallions. Carrots and onions provided a crunchy sweetness, and vinegar was a strong but not prominent flavor. Interestingly, there was also farfalle pasta.
The snails themselves, being mollusks, reminded me of mussels at first. Then I tasted mushrooms—shitake mushrooms. In terms of appearance and resistance when my teeth clamped down, the snails are somewhat like fungi. Otherwise, the snails blended into the salad, not having too strong a flavor of their own. The salad came with plain white noodles, which were good in their own right and ideal for picking up some of the heat from the salad.
The squid soondae came next. Based on the outside of the squid, some baking or broiling process seemed to be involved—perhaps some grilling also as there were grilled onions and peppers on the platter. Everything on the plate seemed to be seared in some sweet red sauce. The server who brought the squid also carried scissors, which he used to cut off the tentacles. The tentacles were sliced into a separate bowl with some onions and peppers, and the squid was then split into about eight portions.
Eating a piece of the squid—stuffed with pork belly—was like eating a stubbornly tough piece of pork fat, though there was a bacon-like crispness on the top layer. The squid definitely took on the flavor of the pork belly meat, which very soft, as though it was braised before being baked inside the squid. Eating the pork belly and squid together intensified the pork flavor, and was nicely complemented by the sweetness of the onions and heat of the peppers.
The portions were very generous. One order seemed to be able to feed two people well—a trend we noticed in neighboring tables as well. Considering this, initially hefty-looking price tags really weren’t that hefty. A good portion of our meals left the restaurant with us and were eaten breakfast or lunch for the next day.
As we were still eating and talking, we noticed a draft. The door was constantly opening and closing, and there was a line forming out the door. By 7:00 p.m., all twenty tables were occupied and people were waiting for free tables. Surprisingly, we weren’t rushed out at all. The staff was extremely friendly the entire time we were there. When we left around 9:00 p.m., we saw that the line went down the stairs, out the outermost door, and continued onto the sidewalk. There were at least fifteen people on the line. Nevertheless, we were extremely pleased with the experience and vowed to come again.
All photos courtesy of Christina John.