Once upon a time there was a cook named Steve. His last name is Sera. I think Doris Day once sang a song about his family called “Que Será, Será.” But that was in an old Hitchcock film before most of us were born; in English, it means, “whatever will be, will be.”
This is a very Zen attitude, which is good because Steve likes Korean food, and Korea is 22.8 percent Buddhist. For Steve, that philosophy means he can take a big knife and chop things — lots of veggies and meats. Oh, what fun!
Steve realizes that he can chop-chop and make a living with his big knife. So in 2013, he takes that big knife and opens Tampa’s smallest food truck/trailer. He calls it Kind Grinds. (Que será, será — whatever will be, will be.)
Facebook details Steve’s 30-year search for a special girl. When he finally finds her, she is a Russian woman named Olivia. When Steve isn’t chop-chopping, he’s courting Olivia, with tasty food made from pork belly and purple slaw. Olivia also likes delicious food and makes Steve a Russian specialty, enoki mushrooms pickled with cloves and black peppercorns. In 2014, Steve and Olivia get married. (Que será, será — whatever will be, will be.)
By 2015, the Kind Grinds food truck seems too tiny to contain the big knife and their overflowing love. The time has come to move from a tiny trailer to a storefront. Steve thinks the bohemian vibe of Seminole Heights is the perfect locale to open his Korean fusion Chop Chop Shop. (Que será, será — whatever will be, will be.)
Steve wants a no-frills experience that is “rough around the edges, loud, gritty, unorthodox.” He gets it.
The walls are bright red, the floor is concrete and the counters are built from repurposed pallet wood. There are no walls to hide “the madness of the kitchen.” You order at at the counter, then sit at one of the tables and wait. Before you can even discuss the latest baseball playoff results, Olivia’s commanding Russian voice announces your order is ready. Is it possible that the beautiful glazed ceramic bowls on the counter contain your food? What happened to styrofoam, plastic or cheap institutional white? These bowls look like Steve is a member of a white-ceramicist group.
Steve’s basic formula is simple: meat + rice + sauce + side = $9 a bowl, tax included. For thin buckwheat soba noodles, add $2.
First, select a protein. You can’t go wrong. Choose from thinly cut, perfectly grilled chicken breast squares or ginger-roasted pulled pork seared on the grill. Better yet, try the combo for just $1 more. There’s also a small upcharge for yummy chopped beef. My favorite, no surprise to regular readers who know of my fetish, is the tender braised pork belly with a seared salt-and-pepper crust.
The sauces add oodles of flavor. Miso Love Love is a “one-of-a-kind” sauce with coconut cream, Japanese miso, roasted white sesame, Dijon mustard and a touch of sweetness. Asient Orange is a spicy-tangy orange chili glaze. Bangkok Boogie combines tamarind, pomegranate, Chinese five spice, some zip from chilies, ginger and fried garlic, and then lime and honey for acidity and sweetness to balance the spice. I can’t decide which one I prefer. My tablemates are too busy chowing down to even offer an opinion.
The standard sides are terrific. Mean Greens are simply blanched Asian spinach that retain plenty of crunch drizzled with black sesame sauce. The purple slaw shreds red cabbage and white onion, tossing it it lightly with Japanese mayo, rice vinegar and a touch of fresh ginger for zing.
For $1 more, you can add specialty sides. The house-made Napa cabbage kimchi is a pickled wonder of texture and tartness. Then, there’s Olivia’s aforementioned Russian pickled ’shrooms that add a nice earthiness and bright acidity to balance the spicy sauces.
There are calls on Facebook for brown rice and tofu. Certainly, a seafood option would expand the audience as well. The restaurant offers burgers and a few “eat-with-your-hands” offerings, though. While the drinks are limited, Steve encourages free BYOB. We opt for a tall boy of green tea with ginseng.
In case you are a fire-breather, Chop Chop features a local brand of gourmet hot sauces produced in Lutz. Jason’s Fire Fusions self-describes as “crazy amounts of flavor, with the perfect amount of heat.” These are handmade, small-batch affairs created with just a blender, two pots, a ladle and a funnel. So if you have an asbestos mouth and want to kick it up a notch, or two or three, there’s a selection of Jason Droor’s all-natural, non-GMO, gluten-free bottles on the counter. These range from “The Mild One,” with green habanero peppers, fresh herbs and garlic, to “Instant Death,” which is self-explanatory.
Part of the no-fuss experience is that you bus your own table, removing the glazed ceramic bowls to a gray rubber tub and throwing your used plastic utensils or chopsticks into a stainless-steel bin with a foot pedal. Never mind. Chop Chop Shop is one of the Bay area’s most exciting bargain meals. Que Será, Será, indeed.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.