"That's boneless chicken feet; it's pretty spicy," the waitress at Thank Sool Pocha, a new Korean pub at 2222 South Havana Street, said when I showed her a photo of a dish I was craving but didn't know by name.
Ten minutes later, I had my own plate of boneless chicken feet swimming in brick-red sauce. The server handed me a separate bowl filled with white rice, shredded seaweed, fish roe and sesame oil. "You get to make your own rice balls," she explained, leaving a pair of plastic food-service gloves next to the bowl.
The dish was just what I was hoping for: unique, fiery and even a little interactive. I donned the plastic gloves like a veteran cafeteria worker and dove into the rice bowl, mixing all the ingredients together and forming small, irregular spheres. I was glad nobody was watching, as my rice-ball technique was definitely lacking; the oil in the mixture made it a little tricky to get everything to adhere, so the results were loose and lumpy. Still, they tasted great, especially when dunked in the sauce surrounding the chicken feet, which carried a tangy, smoky heat — although not enough to warrant the server's warning.
The chicken feet themselves were, well, kind of weird. Since they're mostly just skin and bone, chicken feet don't seem like the best candidate for deboning. The edible part cooks up into soft, slightly chewy curls, but bits of cartilage and bone that hadn't been removed from those curls had me occasionally spitting out shards. And while high levels of collagen give ramen broth its silky texture, Chinese soup dumplings their wondrous filling and trendy bone broth its healthful qualities, the unctuous, almost gelatinous texture of slow-cooked chicken feet isn't something embraced in Western dining. Still, it proved very addictive as I kept eating, and the collagen in these chicken feet made the surrounding sauce richer, even if it turned the skin a little slippery.
Not everything on the menu at Thank Sool Pocha (which is pronounced exactly as it's spelled) is weird or intimidating. The bar and grill (you'll be doing the grilling, if you decide to order Korean barbecue) opened last spring as one of a growing number of Korean pubs in Aurora, a roster that includes Funny Plus, Angry Chicken and DMZ Pub. Korean-style fried chicken is a real draw at these places, since its crackly shell, often coated in sticky, spicy-sweet sauce, appeals to anyone who loves properly fried yard bird. Thank Sool Pocha's fried chicken comes with or without the clingy sauce, or you can order it as "Fire Chicken": a bowl of chicken smothered in molten cheese and a different, more incendiary sauce.
The space is decorated with the same modern, DIY aesthetic you'll find at bars in trendy Denver neighborhoods, and after dark it fills up with groups of Koreans in their twenties ordering round after round of beer, soju (a distilled grain beverage), makgeolli (a cloudy, carbonated rice wine) and spirits, with boilermaker-style drinks (with shots of sake, soju or Jägermeister dropped into mugs of beer) among the most popular orders. There are a few craft beers on the menu, but this is a quantity-over-quality kind of place, at least where beverages are concerned, and soju these days is mostly an industrial product, born of pure ethanol and cut to about 20 percent alcohol, with fruit flavors sometimes added.
Much of Thank Sool Pocha's food lineup pairs well with booze. Beyond fried chicken, good options for soaking up the alcohol include savory Korean pancakes laced with kimchi, seafood or cheese; don katsu (crunchy breaded pork cutlets); and pork belly with kimchi and tofu. The seafood-filled pancake comes as a substantial serving that could serve several as an appetizer, with generous amounts of mussels, clams and calamari buried in the fluffy hotcake.
After 10 p.m., the place gets quite rowdy, especially on weekends, as soju bombs are gulped by the pint and shots of Jameson and Hennessy join the mix. Older Korean men in golf attire talk politics, a table of young women celebrate an unnamed event, and the din and clamor escalates over the music and televisions. The aroma of grilled meats — pork belly, beef tongue, L.A.-style galbi — and bubbling stews rises from nearly every table as customers switch from appetizers to shareable entrees. House favorites include army stew (budae-jjigae in Korean), a hearty mixture of noodles, rice cakes, sliced hot dogs and kimchi (among other Eastern and Western ingredients); tteokbokki (rice cakes in a gochujang-based sauce); and spicy stir-fried pork.
If you're going to Thank Sool Pocha for the first time, take friends and order in rounds so you can continuously gauge your hunger level. There's a happy hour from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday that lands you 50 percent off your first small plate (some of which aren't so small) with your drink order. Otherwise, prices can seem a bit on the high side — but portions are generous, so consider that you'll be splitting most orders between several people.
This stretch of Havana has evolved into a real destination for international and late-night dining, with karaoke bars, cafes, ice cream shops and full-service restaurants giving fun-seekers plenty of options to keep the food and drink coming until last call. The scene here is far more diverse than in RiNo or Capitol Hill, with African immigrants visiting the hookah bar and Ethiopian restaurant alongside Thank Sool Pocha, sushi lovers filling up at Sushi Katsu's all-you-can eat buffet on the opposite side, and singers flocking to the private karaoke rooms at Muse Noraebang Cafe tucked into the corner of the strip mall.
A hankering for boneless chicken feet — beckoning like tiny, floppy doll hands — isn't a prerequisite for making Thank Sool Pocha the focus of your next weekend outing; this pub has plenty of other selling points. So the next time you're planning a night on the town, you can jump into Korean bar food with both feet.
Thank Sool Pocha is located at 2222 South Havana Street and is open from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Call 720-485-3682 or visit thanksool.com for more details.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.