By Brianna Chu
Soh Grill opened its doors to Raymond Avenue a year and a half ago. When its owner, Tamara Kim, moved to Pasadena about three years ago, she noticed a lack of Korean food options and decided to open the restaurant in charming Old Town Pasadena. While Soh Grill is Kim’s first restaurant, she is no stranger to the business; Kim’s mother ran a restaurant in Seoul, Korea, while Kim was growing up, and when her family moved to the United States over 35 years ago, her mom continued on in the business wherever they moved. When Kim finally retired from her previous career, she debated about what she should do next. Since she had moved with her mom and brother to Pasadena, she decided to utilize the experience she had at hand: her family! Her mother even used to work in the kitchen the first year Soh Grill was open, but due to health issues, is no longer able to; so her brother took over their mother’s spot and now works full-time in the kitchen.
The restaurant is modern, sleek, and slightly industrial in feel – the high, bare, concrete ceiling exposes its light fixtures and ventilation, but still feels wide-open and airy. The warm wood paneling, stainless steel table dividers, and expansive white marble tabletops counter the industrial aesthetic up above with chic minimalism. Open kitchens, too, are always visually appealing and interesting, and I think many enjoy the ability to see the chefs working in the back to prepare meal components. Kim put a lot of thought, effort, and detail in the layout of her restaurant; and they work hard to upkeep the chic, clean, and minimalistic atmosphere of Soh Grill, meticulously changing out the air filters every month to ensure the air is consistently free of smoke and smells. It took Kim seven months, working with architects and engineers, to achieve designs for the smokeless, odorless environment she wanted to be passed by the city, partly because they didn’t understand what she was trying to accomplish. These little details are easily overlooked by customers, yet they add to the experience by removing any factors that could distract from the delicious work of the chefs.
Soh Grill is closed Mondays, but opens Tuesday to Sunday from 5 pm -10 pm for dinner. You can only enjoy lunch there after noon on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and they don’t currently take reservations for lunch, so plan accordingly!
While Korean barbecue restaurants are perhaps most visited for dinner, Soh Grill also has a selection of appetizers and lunch specials, too, which range from $7-$15. Their kimchi fried rice, which is also available in a vegetarian-friendly version that excludes the bacon, is a bestseller for a reason; wildly addictive and served with dried seaweed, a fried egg, and optional bacon, this fried rice disappeared quickly from the bowl into my stomach! We also got a chance to try their bibimbap, a rice bowl with a variety of cooked vegetables and meat, also served with a beautiful fried egg on top. They serve their bibimbap with spicy sauce on the side, so that you can flavor your bowl to your own spice palate. They have several other lunch specials beside these, and offer several vegetarian-friendly dishes, too.
Overall, Soh Grill’s menu is focused and tailored. There are ample choices, but not so many as to be overwhelming. Kim wanted to put more focus on the meat itself than side dishes, which are only meant to complement and not overwhelm or outshine the meat itself. Customers can expect a wide variety of high-quality cuts of meat available to mix and match to taste, or choose from a pre-set menu. “Soh” fittingly translates to “beef,” and their meat selection reflects an emphasis on fresh cuts of beef. We chose from one of their pre-arranged Butcher’s Choice sets for two people. There are two of these pre-set combinations for group sizes of two (charmingly entitled the Lucky Split), four (Dudes Platter), and six (Raymond Madness), for ease of ordering. Our particular set featured cuts of prime top blade, pork belly, pork jowl, and some classic bulgogi (aka “fire meat” – thin slices of beef marinated in a mixture that usually consists of soy sauce, garlic, and sesame oil, along with other ingredients). We also asked to try their kalbi, or marinated beef short rib. While bulgogi is a KBBQ classic, our waiter, Roland, explained to us that kalbi is the most traditional meat.
Seven different chef-curated banchan preceded our main course, starting with a salad dressed in a mouth-watering miso-sesame dressing, followed by sauteed yuchoi greens, bean sprouts, homemade kimchi, pickled daikon radish, cucumber with onions (available only at dinner; should you come during lunchtime, you can enjoy their potato salad!), and a stack of rice paper with a spicy sauce. These delectable sides are also all vegetarian and gluten-free.
Served on a beautiful wood cutting board, our meat was also accompanied by a slice of white onion and king oyster mushroom. The meat was all incredibly fresh and tender – the pork was especially juicy and flavorful with its higher fat content – and the bulgogi and kalbi were marinated meat perfection, a joy to the tastebuds! The best part? Everything was cooked perfectly to each of our preferences – one of the aspects of Korean barbecue that I enjoy most is being able to play a part in making your own meal. At Soh Grill, should you feel uncertain about using the grill yourself, friendly and attentive staff are ready to guide you through the process or cook your meat for you should you wish it. While Roland let us take over our cooking, he regularly checked on our meat, and was careful to ensure that our pork was properly cooked. Their house special sauce was addicting, and I had to ration their kimchi lest I would run out before we even got halfway through our meal!
Kim is bothered by the idea that many people associate Chinese food with to-go boxes, or Korean barbecue with all-you-can-eat style places. She wants to change people’s preconceptions of what Korean food is. To her, Korean barbecue should be an indulgent, quality experience; and at Soh Grill, it’s a meal that has the luxury of eating out while incorporating some of the intimacy and camaraderie of cooking in the kitchen together. Soh Grill is a great place to go if you’re new to Korean barbecue, as you can trust that you will have experienced, friendly, and accommodating guides to introduce you to all the nuances and fun of the meal, set in a modern, chic environment. I recommend going with others – the more, the merrier! – and immersing yourself in the delicious fun that is Korean barbecue.