Gabose Pocha Serves Casual Fare in South Florida's Own Koreatown

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The best-known section of University Drive in Lauderhill might be Koreatown. But drive too fast down the mile-long stretch between Commercial Boulevard and NW 44th Street and you could miss it. The area is home to just a handful of Korean barbecue restaurants and specialty markets, but it's the type of neighborhood where you can sample some of South Florida's best banchan, dine with a tabletop grill, and score a giant jar of kimchi -- all in one trip.

At the center of it all is Gabose, a 14-year-old restaurant that stands as the original landmark for this niche neighborhood and also the final foray in a series of establishments opened (and sold) by James Soonkuk Hong and Eunsuk Hong. Today, it's run by their daughter and her husband, Susan and Fred Kim.

See also: Closer Look: Gabose Pocha in Lauderhill (Photos)

Gabose's early success helped to attract other like-minded businesses, starting with Oriental Mart, the Korean market in the shopping center across the street, says Susan. It didn't take long for others to follow suit, and now places like Manna Korean offer additional dining options for those who enjoy the robust, spicy dishes of Korea.

But there's more to Korean cuisine than just barbecue, she adds.

"I wanted to create a traditional Korean pub experience, something that you can't find here," says Susan. "I wanted to do something fun, where I could also be creative. This place is all about drinking, drinking, eating, and drinking."

So she created Gabose Pocha. The 3-month-old eatery, next door to the original barbecue restaurant, is Susan's interpretation of a Korean pojangmacha, reference to the tarp-covered street bars that sprang up after the country's liberation from Japan in 1945.

Called pocha for short -- a melding of the Korean words "pojang" (meaning "covered") and "macha" (meaning "wagon") -- these makeshift tents originally served nothing but grilled meats and the country's popular rice liquor, soju. Today, the pocha has become the Korean gastropub, where battalions of office workers descend after a long day's work to drink beer, take shots of soju, and sample anju -- dishes meant to be eaten with alcohol.

At Pocha in Lauderhill, the idea is the same. You won't find yourself in a makeshift tent, but you will discover that many of the items have been sourced straight from Korea, including the metal dishes and cups, even the gas-lit tables where you're seated. Adding to the experience are the servers, who converse softly in Korean; a fish tank housing live sea snails that gurgles near the exposed kitchen; and Hyuna, a spunky Korean pop singer crooning from the speakers.

There are no TVs, but that's OK; here, you're meant to drink and eat in wanton abandon. Start with a shrub, a Korean cocktail made from fermented fruit, vinegar, and soju -- a distilled rice liqour, more reminiscent of vodka than saki. Fred's house-made selection is always evolving, with a rotating arsenal of flavors. The first few weeks, it was strawberry-basil and blueberry; most recently, combinations include pineapple with rosemary and jalape–o. The mix of fermented, syrupy juice with vinegar and strengthened with soju is at once tart and tangy -- and incredibly easy to drink.

If you're not the type to ask too many questions, a few sips might help loosen you up. With this menu, you'll be forced to inquire at least once or twice. One half is in Korean, the other a handwritten interpretation in English, minus the descriptions.

"This is done on purpose, of course," says Susan. "We want the customer to interact with their servers as much as possible, to ask questions and learn."

Pocha's menu starts out familiar enough with a list of fresh catch offerings like nakji (Korean octopus), abalone, and sea cucumber sold at market price. A trip to Pocha would be a waste without a taste of these live delicacies -- delivered straight from Korea -- available each evening. Susan admits it's an aspect that took months of planning (one that is expensive, at $25 to $45 per plate, and time-consuming) but necessary.

"This is an experience you won't find anywhere else in Florida," says Susan. "Having live seafood completes the traditional pocha concept."

Recently, the fresh catch was abalone, plucked straight from the tank and presented tableside in the server's hands, the snail's rhythmic contractions mesmerizing. From there, it's cut and plated in the kitchen and reintroduced in thin slices with a light dusting of salt and pepper. Koreans will eat it this way, crunching through the soft muscle. It tastes clean and briny but can also be sampled dipped in sides of salted sesame oil and chojang, a spicy-sweet red-pepper vinaigrette.

The difficult part of Pocha's menu is not the seafood, however, but the anju -- best described as the restaurant's never-ending pairing dishes, a series of small plates meant to be eaten with plenty of liquor. Each is exotic and unfamiliar and requires some explaining.

We tasted several, starting with tukboki, a popular Korean snack made from soft, chewy rice cakes served in a thick, spicy-sweet red chili sauce. It's like rigatoni marinara went on a bender in Korea and came back a little too al dente and with a strange new sauce as a souvenir.

Next, we're urged to try the samgyeopsal, or barbecued pork belly. The gas burner at our table is lit, and the meat cooked in a steel pan so we can watch fat slowly caramelize to a gooey-sweet gum before the server flicks the switch and motions for us to eat. It's heavy and filling and pairs best with a shot or two of soju.

If you're feeling adventurous, beef intestine (top chang hokum) and chicken gizzard (dak ddong jib) are racy options. Instead, we opt for the gol bangee -- a spicy escargot salad with carrot, cucumber, and cabbage slaw dressed in a pasty-thick sriracha-style sauce -- and find it's worth the gamble. Served in a large metal bowl, it's tempting to balance the whole deal in one hand under you so as to best deliver each delicate bite via chopstick.

"When people ask me what I miss most about Korea, it's this," says Susan. "It's how we play on the weekends. By the end of the night, [my cousins and I] will have gone to eight different pochas. That's what I miss, and that's why I decided to bring the pocha here."

Gabose Pocha is located at 4933 N. University Drive, Lauderhill. Hours are 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday. Call 954-999-0603, or visit facebook.com/Gabosepocha.

Chicken wings $8

Abalone market price

Gol bangee $12

Spicy pork belly $16

Spicy tukboki $6

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