Happy Days had Laverne & Shirley. JAG had NCIS. Perfect Strangers had Family Matters. Some of these spin-offs were better than others, but they keep on crawling across our TV screens. Cho77 is chef-restaurateur Lon Symensma's second, more casual take on Asian cuisine, which I guess makes his upscale ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro Balki Bartokomous. Cho77 may be casual, but it's not at all fast-casual, just a neighborhood place on South Broadway that's more welcoming than ChoLon's sometimes forbidding glamour and prices. The mother restaurant has already distinguished itself in the happy-hour scene with talked-about treats like French-onion-soup dumplings and Kaya toast with fluffy egg clouds; I went to Cho77 to see if the spin-off could match its predecessor with its laid-back, Stefan Urquelle vibe.
So many happy hours are offering Asian-inspired small plates, from Vesta Dipping Grill to P17 to Root Down. Cho77 differs in that it has a singular focus: the street carts and market stalls of Southeast Asia. Two parts of the menu are given equal weight: the "Share" portion, with split-able plates, and higher-protein "Main" dishes. I focused almost exclusively on the small plates at happy hour, which runs 5 to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday and 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Cho77 offers a $2 discount on Share items and cocktails, along with $3 drafts and sake bombs, $1 sake shots, $4 wells and $5 wines. Symensma's reputation for food attracts people to the SoBo restaurant, but craft cocktails should rightly be a big draw here too. Each of the four listed drinks involve Eastern ingredients in fascinating ways, like the Drunken Monk ($8) with gin, muddled mint, kaffir lime and a float of grapefruit rice beer. My Crouching Tiger ($6) was built on Don Q rum, with additions of lemongrass syrup and coconut and a wet rim of Sriracha salt. The beverage was pleasantly thick and eye-pleasing, with black flecks from the charred pineapple garnish floating in a glass that flowed smoothly between layers of alcohol and tropical flavor.
Sitting at Cho77's lengthy bar is an ideal place to enjoy happy hour, with sexy sconces above and un-subtitled kung-fu flicks playing on the far end. Service was friendly but a bit lacking — happy hour specials weren't explained by anyone on staff nor listed on the menu. And while the usual server spiel here can be grating (I can see where the chopsticks are, thanks), no one bothered to explain the four table sauces this time. Luckily, the plates I was served didn't need any additional flavor. Red chili pork dumplings ($6) are swimming in a Chinese vinegar and chili sauce that is too good not to try and slurp straight from the plate. The pork inside is almost a coarse paste, rich and tangy with chiles and crunchy with nuts and delightful fried shallots. There's pork in the bao mi ($6) as well, but comparing the two meats is like putting Cheers up against Frasier. Frasier Crane — er, I mean black pepper pork belly — is sloppy but more toothsome than the gelatinous squares of fat I'm sometimes offered at other happy hours. Co77's version is dotted with peppercorns and sandwiched between lightly pickled veggies and the same fluffy, glutinous buns served at ChoLon. There's Sriracha mayo here too, which is mandatory for a place like this, but it makes these buns a compelling package. "Share" might be false advertising though, because being asked to share four dumplings and two buns is a sad joke when they're this delicious.
I scoffed at the size of these dishes at first, but I ended up fairly stuffed, unable to sample the lauded roti flatbread ($7) with lamb bacon relish and a fried egg. A bit later I finished up my meal with a traditionally-served Vietnamese coffee ($6) and one of the two desserts offered, Asian pear tart tatin ($7). It's a fine series finale, with the Saigon cinnamon ice cream on top bleeding onto the fried, sweet flatbread below. This a sparkling happy hour, but the prices are still well above any respectable Vietnamese place, especially if you want to order small plates and a main dish. Yet I'm glad that Symesma and crew can translate their vision into a Next Generation restaurant that's well-calibrated to this neighborhood.
Perfect For: A third date — you know the kind, where you're comfortable with each other but not so casual that you can just Netflix and chill. The cool ambiance of Cho77 will impress your partner, then $3 sake bombs will break down your barriers.
Don't Miss: Call ahead and you can get takeout from Cho77. Just about anything on the menu can be packed up and taken home — a lifesaver if you're in the Baker 'hood and tired of delivery pizza.
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