The evolution of Korean food in Phila.

Noodles, kimchi, BBQ? Check - and also check out Asian fusion and transcendent wings in our growing Koreatown.

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Korean soul food: Jung-Hyun Kang eats a bowl of jam bong (spicy noodle soup with seafood) at Cheltenham Seafood Noodle Shop, part of the growing Korean food culture in North Philadelphia.

Koreatown's spirited second act rises at the far northern end of Fifth Street, spilling onto Cheltenham Avenue, its telltale signage leaving no mystery about its ownership - and target audience.

Once upon a time, it petered out closer to Olney; yellow-stucco Kim's BBQ - a venerable diner retrofitted with tabletop charcoal grills to sizzle the short ribs - one of its last visuals.

But Koreatown's center of activity has marched on, given a second wind by a next generation of restaurants - reimagined pizza parlors, produce stands recast as trendy Korean fried chicken hangouts, and a sleek "Chinese bistro," well-suited to the budgets of business-lunching men in suits.

The simple noodle houses (one indeed in a former pizza place) are still there, thank goodness. And, yes, other traditional tabletop barbecue halls, the best arguably several blocks to the east or south.

So there is a bit of yin-yang, a duality that has served this Koreatown well; it is making new friends, keeping the old.

It has spread its wings west on Cheltenham to Elkins Park, home of the sprawling H-Mart; and spread them literally, in the case of Cafe Soho, the chicken-wing spot just east of Fifth.

It is not without pains. But it is growing while other Korean enclaves - in Upper Darby and on Castor Avenue - have found themselves increasingly boxed in.

A new vector is rising in Blue Bell, Montgomery County - recently boasting Gaya, a Korean-themed complex on Skippack Pike - fueled in part by the upward mobility of the children of Korean immigrants who served time 30 years ago in the fetid sewing factories of North Philadelphia.

But a fair number of the 15,000 Koreans living in the city and near suburbs, and some of the tens of thousands more in the region, still find their way to Fifth and Cheltenham, if only for a restorative bowl of gently seasoned seafood noodle soup or a foil-lined platter of wings, or to pick up a birthday cake on the commute back home to Bucks County.

Witness Kevin Kim, attired in a handsome sportcoat, the son of sweatshop workers, now attorney to half the city's Korean restaurants, greeting energetic Yu Jong, one of the new breed of owners.

They are on the sidewalk of a strip mall at 67th Avenue and Fifth that houses a health-food kimchi outlet; two Korean barbecues; the "Chinese cuisine bistro" called Dragon; and an inviting Korean-owned but French-accented bakery-coffee shop.

Yu Jong owns Cafe Soho around the corner on Cheltenham. And it is here that you get a first taste not only of the most extraordinary chicken wings in town - twice-fried, the second time driving out the fat and leaving the skin as crispy and glazed as a Peking duck's - but also of the churn that is changing Koreatown's relentlessly traditional offerings. (Let us be clear before moving on. These wings - ubiquitous in Korea under the names Buffalo Wings and Donkey Wings, and gaining ground in New York - have beaten the Colonel at his own game. They are fresh, not frozen, jumbo wings; breaded with special homemade crumbs; the meat rendered fluffily moist from deep-frying in two 10-minute shifts; then brushed at the end with light sweet-soy or tangy hot sauce. A bowl of pickled radish cubes takes the place of celery. But the pitcher of beer, as likely as not, is domestic American.)

Cafe Soho is part of a small chain called "Charm Chicken" that Yu Jong is looking to expand, possibly soon in Upper Darby. And if it draws a younger, and eventually, more-diverse crowd, so much the better.

A few doors east, at a bright, contemporary room called Cooking.Papa, that is in fact the explicit agenda - mixing up the menu to change the mix of faces at the tables.

Cooking.Papa is the venture of Soon Hong, a Temple film graduate who affects a trademark flat jeff cap. By the time he took over about a year ago, the space had been a sushi bar, and an ethnic Korean cafe (just as Cafe Soho's space itself had once housed a Korean fresh fruit and produce stand).

But there was already a popular Korean soul food place across the street. So Hong opted for a family-friendly Asian fusion menu - gummy Korean pancakes and teriyaki burgers, tofu lasagna, and grand platters of shabu shabu (literally, swish, swish), a fonduelike dish featuring bok choy, green onion, cabbage and other vegetables, and supremely flavorful shaved rib eye, all of which you dip piece by piece into a bubbling pot of broth that winds up, in the end, as the base for a satisfying rice or noodle soup.

Hong had registered that nearly half the customers in Chinatown's restaurants were non-Asian. In Koreatown, by contrast, he estimated that 80 percent of the customers were Korean: "I'd like to break that tradition," he says.

To that end, he printed up more than 20,000 glossy flyers and, a few weeks ago, had them delivered from Melrose Park to Oak Lane, casting Cooking.Papa as a "family restaurant" welcoming the entire neighborhood.

The popular soul food spot across the street is called the Cheltenham Seafood Noodle Shop. And to the contrary, it is hardly looking to expand its horizons. It is looking to hold its ground - and doing a good job of it, if robust lunch crowds are fair measure.

Little English is spoken by the staff here. But the food speaks for itself: The goon mandu, fried dumplings, were as fine as I've encountered in Koreatown, the skins crisply golden, the pork filling airily light and subtle.

The signature spicy noodle soup with seafood (including a peekaboo cameo by a head-on shrimp) is unexpectedly reminiscent not of Korea's chile-spiked hot pots, but of the saffron-tinted fish stew of Provence: "Spicy," it turns out, can mean "seasoned."

It is at the noodle shop, as well, that you may discover that the proper order in which to eat the ball of Chinese-style fried rice wrapped in an omelette crepe is to first twist off a bite with chopsticks, then dredge it through a mild-mannered bowl of saffron-colored broth that's served for that purpose.

Just blocks south, of course, Kim's BBQ still holds sway, as does chef Kye Cheol Cho's beloved Seo Ra Bol barbecue house (at Second and Grange), known for its short ribs and smorgasbord of pickles.

There is a soft tofu house, and at Front and Olney for the last 18 months, Everyday Good House, another tabletop barbecue hall, with sides of impressive Korean pancakes and, if you'd rather not grill strips of marinated meat, a clay-pot rice dish called bibimbap (see Craig LaBan's accompanying review).

But it is in Koreatown itself, the classic noodle houses bumping up against trendy fried chicken joints, that a prodigal visitor may find the need to adjust dusty notions.

No, the food is not invariably hot and spicy. In fact, the black-bean-paste noodles (served accommodatingly with scissors for snipping) are about as intimidating as red-gravy spaghetti and meatballs.

And yes, the dumplings here can compete, in their best iterations, with the finest in Chinatown.

And no, the broad, foil-lined bowls of greaseless Korean fried chicken wings have nothing in common with the greasy losers that have given the food group its unsavory reputation.

As for the issue of Asian fusion or pan-Asian or such, let us just say that the sunny coffee-shop bakery near the Dragon bistro goes by the name Paris Baguette.

But it blithely stocks, in addition to familiar French pastry, doughnuts filled with bean pastes, stretchy egg breads dotted with sweet chestnut, and creamy, house-made popsicles of many flavors, including my personal favorite, dusky green tea.

I can't think of a better way, in fact, to exit Koreatown - its distinctive signage receding, its whiff of smoke and garlic fading - than with one of those green-tea pops clutched firmly in hand.


Where to Munch

Cafe Soho
468 W. Cheltenham Ave.
215-224-6800

Cooking.Papa
400 W. Cheltenham Ave.
215-224-4200

Cheltenham Seafood Noodle Shop
401 W. Cheltenham Ave.
215-635-3959

Dragon Chinese Cuisine Bistro
6779 N. Fifth St.
215-224-4414

Paris Baguette
6773 N. Fifth St.
215-276-2000


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.