I have to admit, I've been slacking. It was almost a year ago when a friend told me about this magical place where you can fill up on gas, buy lottery tickets, and order a big bowl of bibimbap all on the same lot. I was skeptical.
Since then, I've heard about the hangover-curing qualities of jobchae, the late-night bulgogi cravings, and the increasing level of satisfaction that every single bite of donkkaseu unveils. It was time to visit Ko Cha.
The scene of the location is exactly as one would expect: a small store front sits nestled between an Exxon Mobile and a Marco's Pizza. Inside, seven tables, a few bar stools at the window, and a wall illuminated with popular menu items make the space feel nothing like a gas station.
The tabletops are made of picturesque Asian murals, and the strong scent of sesame and ginger waft through the air.
The menu takes a tour of China and Korea. On one side, there's lo mein, moo goo gai pan, and General Tso's chicken. On the other — nang myun, kalbi, and jobchae. We focused on the latter.
Tteokbokki, a popular Korean snack food made from soft rice cakes, noodle-like fish cakes, and red chili sauce exudes subtle heat with a lingering sweetness that's balanced by the presence of sesame seeds and diced green onion ($7.99).
Miniature dumplings filled with beef and spices ($5.99) and lumpia ($6.99) — crispy spring rolls stuffed with minced pork, onion, garlic, and various spices — are served fried and piping hot.
The kimchi pancakes ($7.99) resemble crispy personal pizzas, and they're every bit as good as they sound. Order one and your neighbors at the next table over might stare in envy before walking your way saying, "Is that the pancake? I'm going to have that next time." Indeed, it's a must.
The pictures on the menu can be deceiving, but in a good way. Each entrée comes to the table with a separate bento box that includes a mix of sides that seems to change daily — ginger-forward curry potatoes, bitter greens with sesame, and kimchi to name a few. The pickled cucumbers act as a nice palate cleanser thanks to its subtle spice. My favorite is perhaps the most simple side of all: shredded cabbage with a touch of lemon juice, sesame seeds, and a sprig of cilantro — a zesty treat.
Echoes of Kelly Clarkson that come from the boombox in the corner will soon be forgotten when a steaming hot cast-iron plate of kalbi ($11.99/$14.99) arrives at the table. Thin cuts of beef from the chuck end of short ribs (bone and all) sizzle and taunt with an unforgettable aroma. Each bite of beef tantalizes the senses with a sweet and savory mash-up, and the longer the charred onions marinate in the juice of the beef, the closer they get to satisfying a carnivore's cravings.
The noodle world is comprised of bowls of naengmyeon (noodles made from sweet potato starch; $10.99) in the cold, hot, and spicy variety, ramen, and jjajang (noodles topped with chunjang, a salty black soybean paste; $9.99). Each arrives in a large bowl and is paired with all the aforementioned sides. The jjambbong ($12.99) smells of open sea air. A mix of shrimp, octopus, mussels, and scallops swim amongst mushrooms, cabbage, onion, and cumber in a red sea of umami bliss.
Ginger, soy, garlic, and sesame contribute to the addictive slices of beef, better known as bulgogi ($8.99/$12.99), proving that the cravings are the real deal. I have yet to try the hangover-healing qualities of the jobchae (sweet potatoes noodles), but I can confirm the bibimbap is a go-to dish for a reason. The word "bibimbap" literally translates to "mixed rice." It's simple — a hot stone pot gets filled with white rice, a protein (chicken, pork, or beef), and an array of sautéed vegetables like carrots, onions, mushrooms, and bean sprouts. On the top: a fried egg. It's a colorful and aromatic presentation that beckons to be enjoyed. Add a touch of chili pepper paste, mix it all, and dive into sensory overload.
The culinary tour comes to an end when a plate of orange wedges and fortune cookies gets dropped with the check. The food coma is to come.
May we suggest you fill up on gas on the way out. If you forget the lottery tickets, don't stress. You'll be back.