More than a gimmick
by M.B. Lewis
From the November, 2019 issue
Sometimes a gimmick is just a gimmick. And sometimes it gets people in the door to discover good food. Case in point: Hola Seoul, the Mexican-Korean mashup that recently tucked into the eatery-dense westmost block of North University.
Like many fusion trends, this one is working its way inland from the coasts. Lines got so long so fast at the original Kimchi Taco Truck in New York that more Korean barbecue outlets soon popped up there. The intense Korean smoky-savory flavors (of meat, in particular) provide a good basis for improvisation, all the way to the burrito with bulgogi beef and the bacon kimchi fried rice found at the Korilla BBQ chain.
Here in Ann Arbor, Hola Seoul takes a subtler and healthier approach. Proprietor Sung Hee Kim hopes the fusion with Mexican items will get Americans more comfortable with the food of her homeland, and she's off to an impressive start.
Seven varieties of tacos top the substantial menu board posted over the order counter. The heftiest and the priciest ($4.25) is a decent-size piece of delectable golden-crusted cod that's hand-battered and fried to order. Though ready in a matter of minutes, it has a slow-food tastiness far forward of fast-food fish. It's the only taco that comes on a flour tortilla, but it has exactly the same toppings as the others: a colorful and finely proportioned coverlet of east-meets-west flavors, with bright sesame-dressed lettuce and pickled purple onions as the background for light-orange squiggles of not-too-spicy sambal-chili aioli. It's a cheery wedge of modern art that tastes as good as it looks.
Most of the other tacos are just $2.99--very cheap for spot across from the Diag, where a $10 light lunch still feels like a deal. Granted, one taco is not enough for a meal, so get a couple. The spicy pork is truly spicy, the grilled chicken notches in at a milder heat level, and the bulgogi beef is Goldilocks-perfect. I suspect the other
three options--kimchi, panko-crusted shrimp, and tofu ($3.75) will have more niche appeal. For another 50c they'll melt some cheese between your two warmed corn tortillas, but why? They are fine as served.
Quick, made-to-order, deal-of-the-decade tacos have made Hola Seoul immediately popular with students. Explore the menu further, and you'll find four varieties of bento boxes, "shareables" like kimchi fries made with thick-cut skin-on potatoes, and "popcorn" chicken.
That last one summoned scary images of an industrial pile of cast-off nuggets, but a sophisticated dining companion who has eaten her way through Asia's gourmet restaurants and street-food stands insisted we try it. She explained that Korean fried chicken is considered "the original KFC" for good reason, and the tidy kitchen's prep staff reassured me that the chicken is cut into its quarter-size pieces in house before being hand-battered and deep fried.
Our "half-and-half" order included both the garlic-soy and spicy coatings. The amber-colored, mildly flavored garlic-soy nuggets were fine. The sriracha-red firecrackers were just this side of ouchy-hot but addictive. Both coatings can also be had on wings and boneless thighs. If you want the full expression of how wacky and wild this fusion can get, Hola Seoul has you covered with kimchi fries covered with bacon, sausage, cheddar, sour cream, and spicy sauce. Not for me, but hey, it's out there.
The bibimbap epitomizes the freshness, quality, and appeal of Hola Seoul's concept and execution. Served in a bigger, flatter, more salad-shaped bowl than you see at many Korean restaurants, it features a profusion of vegetables at peak color and freshness--mine included green lettuce and spinach, grated and lightly seasoned carrots and zucchini, radish, cilantro, edamame, and corn. I added the optional fresh avocado for a spa-food touch. If you want a stone-bowl sizzling-rice version of bibimbap as the weather cools, just go across the hall to the owners' sister restaurant, Mama Satto.
Hola Seoul deserves credit for creativity and execution. Gimmicks get people in, but freshness, presentation, flavor, and value should keep them coming back.
715 North University Ave.
Tacos and sides 2.99-$4.95, entrees $8.99-$14.99, shareables $8-$30
Daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
[Originally published in November, 2019.]
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