I slipped in at lunch, because Bop & Gogi, a fast-casual Korean restaurant that opened in Centennial in October, seems like a lunch kind of place. But there was only one other person inside, tapping her keys while waiting for takeout, and I knew there would be no fitting in here. Not for the usual reasons in Korean restaurants — that I don't read Korean characters and need help making my way through the menu — but because I couldn't order ramen, bulgogi, katsu, mini-omelets, fried mashed-potato balls, seaweed and two kinds of kimchi (in other words, a typical critic's meal with enough food for two) without attracting an undue amount of attention.
See also: A closer look at Bop & Gogi
Instead, I sat down by the window with a bowl of soondooboo chigae, and quickly appreciated why this spicy soft-tofu stew is a favorite of the girl who was taking orders behind the plastic divider. Hot broth, with enough Korean chile powder to stain it brick-red and override any fishiness it once might have had, held crumbles of tofu that grew softer by the second. They quivered on my spoon, as fun to eat as Jell-O, occasionally slipping off as I scooped up a stray slice of mushroom or jalapeño. Lacking the depth that comes from long-simmered ingredients, the broth was obviously not scratch-made, but the soup was a pleasant start — not to mention a small enough serving that I could unobtrusively order more.
Or so I thought. When I went back for a kimchi pancake, the staff converged at the register out of nowhere, all shouting "a pancake, a pancake, a pancake!" as if I were the millionth customer about to be rewarded with confetti and a shopping spree. Turns out they were calling for Jaymie Ryu, wife of owner Jaedo Ryu, who divides her time between the restaurant and the friendly skies, where she's a flight attendant for United. "She's our pancake lady," someone explained, and she had apparently just stepped outside.
What is it about batter left to crisp in a pan that makes it such a favorite? No matter what you call them — crepes, flapjacks — pancakes have a way of enticing you to eat one bite, then another, then another. But Korean pancakes are nothing like the syrup-drenched sugar bombs that Americans love to eat for breakfast, and they're not much like the savory crepes the French make, either. Jaymie's pancake was wetter than both, closer to an omelet in texture, with spicy kimchi, carrots and onions incorporated into the batter. Slightly orange from Korean chile powder, the pancake was floppy but crisped in spots, and when it cooled, I knew those browned bits would soften, leaving it with all the appeal of a cold onion ring. At least that's what I told myself as I shoved wedge after wedge into my mouth, hardly stopping to chew. (Turns out I was right: Hours later, when I took another nibble, the pancake was a fat Elvis, nothing like its former self.)
The Ryus have been involved with the food industry for a long time: Jaymie's family had a restaurant in Hawaii, and Jaedo's ran one in Korea when he was growing up. But this is their first attempt at a Korean version of the streamlined, greatest-hits format that has worked so well for some Chinese and Mexican concepts, and you sense that it's still new terrain. Timing can be awkward, both for small and large orders. I waited more than ten minutes for that stew, despite the fact that I had the place to myself; on another visit, food for a larger group dribbled in as each dish was made, which was a bit inconvenient for those served last.
The menu, which is hung from the ceiling where you queue up, isn't as clear as it should be, either. Dishes are named in English or translated, but their framed descriptions are scattered around the room as informative decor, which isn't very helpful when you're standing at the counter trying to decide what you want. Larger plates come with two side dishes (grated radish, marinated seaweed, mini-omelets, etc.), and while those add-ons are clearly visible in the metal containers in front of you, they're not spelled out on the menu. So you either point and hope you like what you're getting, or you ask so many questions that you slow down the line, making Bop & Gogi more slow-casual than fast.
Still, this place is a hare compared to Korean barbecue restaurants where meat is grilled tableside. It's also far less expensive, since many sit-down joints require orders for two. You don't get to oversee the meat as it cooks, but you get far more flexibility — which is good when tiptoeing through a new cuisine.
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Some dishes proved authentic enough to please even a Korean friend, especially the spicy radish kimchi, with chunks of daikon radish and a touch of ground pear fermented long enough to make it sour, but not so long that it stunk. (The cabbage and cucumber versions were equally well balanced.) Another standout was the beef galbi, bone-in sections of short ribs that had spent enough time in soy sauce, garlic and sesame oil to stain the meat dark walnut, and enough time on the grill and in the fry pan to leave the sauce as thick as molasses. Keep in mind, though, that here and across the menu, meat is served with more fat, bones and skin than you might be used to.
Other dishes are less traditional, including spicy chicken, a stir-fry with thick slices of dark- and white-meat chicken; chicken teriyaki, which tastes more like honey than its namesake; and fried rice. Bibimbop does live up to its name — bibim means "mixed" and bop means "rice" — but instead of holding bracken fern and dried seaweed, the rice-filled bowl features such crowd-pleasers as lettuce, carrots and bean sprouts, plus a side of gochujang (hot pepper sauce). It's also topped with a fried egg and bulgogi, a classic preparation of marinated meat that can be ordered as a stand-alone entree. Not so classic is the extra helping of sugar added to the marinade. "American people seem to like things saltier and sweeter than regular Korean dishes," Jaymie explained, which might be why the brown sauce over nugget-like strips of pork in the otherwise tasty pork katsu comes out so sweet.
When the restaurant first opened, customers commented that dishes were too mild, and the owners responded by bumping up the heat. Who knows? Maybe those extra spoonfuls of sugar (not to mention the MSG in several soups) will disappear over time, too. With a goal of expanding to five locations and ultimately franchising, the Ryus have every desire to find the right balance for all audiences.