Chris Cho isn’t blanding it down for Center City’s mainstream crowd. He prides himself on serving the full-frontal heat and funk of authentic Korean food at the new Spruce Street branch of his family’s Olney restaurant, Seorabol: “I’m trying to cook the kind of food my parents would approve of — what we grew up eating.”
Unlike the North Philly original (one of the city’s best destinations for Korean barbecued meats), Cho’s two-month-old downtown location unfortunately does not have tabletop grills. The galbi short ribs are tasty enough, but they’re seared with less drama in the kitchen. That inevitably shifts the menu focus more toward Cho’s takes on other traditional dishes: bubbling red tofu soondubu stews; rice-crisping hot-stone bowls of dolsot bibimbap; Jjajangmyun noodles in inky black bean sauce; the pristinely minimalist but restorative broth of the short rib stew known as galbi tang.
Among the most distinctive and fiery dishes here, though, is Cho’s take on budae jjigae, a hot pot for sharing otherwise known as “Army Stew,” a legacy dish from the Korean War, when impoverished Koreans blended American Army rations — Spam, hot dogs, baked beans — into the classic spicy stew known as kimchi jjigae.
“It was the original Korean American fusion food,” said Cho, who cooks the dish as an homage to the late Anthony Bourdain, who popularized it among Western viewers when he cooked Army Stew for CNN’s Anderson Cooper and referred to it, in its modern role, as the king of “dorm food” and the kind of dish Cooper might eat late at night after "hitting the bong with [Wolf] Blitzer in The Situation Room.”
Cho’s version, unlike the Bourdain recipe that uses an anchovy broth, starts with deeply steeped beef broth. That takes on the fermented punch of well-aged kimchi and the fiery orange hue of gochukaru chili spice as this substantial meal of a soup incorporates pork, tofu, and onions alongside the processed pink slabs of Spam, smoky rounds of Cajun andouille sausage (in lieu of hot dogs), and a small sweet scoop of baked beans to round it out. The true dorm food munchie touch comes from Cho’s last-minute addition of Shin-brand instant ramyun noodles, as well as some of the spicy flavor packs that come inside each package. A whiff of that distinctively pungent chili-MSG note rides high and bright above this otherwise hearty, meat-rich stew. And Cho, who doesn’t shy from keeping it edgy, says that’s on purpose: “It’s supposed to be a ghetto soup, so I want them to taste that instant taste. Just a little bit — but not too much.”
— Craig LaBan