The first forkful takes me by surprise. The slippery texture of the glass noodles is so lush as to be erotic. The stir fry flavors are perfectly balanced; a hint of spice from julienned red bell pepper, char from scallions, earthy bite from marinated shiitakes, some herbal spinach notes and the sweet crunch of carrots. The tamari-sesame sauce clings to and mellows each morsel. There’s harmony and joy even without the welcome addition of a sunny egg yolk that stares back from the center of your plate. This is Chef Noel Cruz’s triumphant japchae.
Gangchu Chicken & Beer
6618 N Nebraska Ave. Tampa
Shareables $6-$8; mains $10-$16; dessert $8; beer/wine/cocktails $4-$12
813-723-4264 (GANG); eatgangchu.com
But Chef Cruz is much more than a one-trick pony. Everything we sample at Gangchu Chicken and Beer in Seminole Heights puts a smile on our faces. Ostensibly, they celebrate Korean style chicken and beer, but the menu is so much more.
Take, for instance, the fried vegetable dumplings which we choose to share instead of loaded Korean fries. The small crisp chestnut colored pockets are stuffed with glass noodles mixed with bits of kimchi, red bell pepper and carrots. One dip in the tamari-vinegar adds just enough kick and complexity to make your palate stand up and take notice.
What the aforementioned japchae is to texture, the kimchi fried rice is to spice. It’s got plenty of chunky onions and toasted sesame seeds, but what makes it roar on the palate is gochujang, Korea’s distinctive red chili paste plus an ample garnish of cross cut green onion rounds and toasted sesame seeds. It’s just flat out delicious without too much kick for tender palates.
As for the chicken in the title, we skip the wings (available with or without bones) and go straight to the crispy kimchi-brined chicken breast sandwich. Like the wings, it can be tossed in a quintet of sauces. Our server shares that their favorite is “sweet chili garlic.” That’s a wise choice; the crisp, golden coating envelops the juicy white chicken meat, but what really makes it sing is the Gangchu perilla ranch dressing. Perilla is a leaf in the mint family (think Japanese shiso), but it imparts a tinge of licorice which marries perfectly with the housemade pickles. The thin cucumber rounds retain some crunch, but add just enough vinegary bite to balance all the other flavors and to make you exclaim an unconscious, “WOW,” as you try not to talk with a full mouth. If you want a lesson in how artisanal condiments make your palate dance, this is it. And it all sits lusciously on a buttery potato bun.
The pickles are part of the array of “banchan,” or sides, that are made with such care that each one delivers in spades—from tart squares of pickled daikon radish, to fermented kimchi, marinated bean sprouts and creamy potato salad. The chicken sandwich includes a mound of long, thin cut fries dotted with Korean dry rub, which imparts loads of flavor, but they could be crispier. The flavors are so distinctive, though, that I’m not in the mood to quibble.
The beer menu largely showcases local craft brews; the lone Korean brand is Terra, an easy drinking lager which proves a refreshing choice. I’m partial to dark spirits, so I select The Shadowlawn cocktail, which is spin on a Boulevardier combining rye whiskey, cocchi Torino (sweet vermouth), Gangchu banana liqueur, tropical dram, and a coconut-infused Campari. The tropical notes are subtle, but the result is a complex delight.
The only sweet offering is fritter style bread pudding, which is essentially thick cut French toast. The quartet of custard-soaked bread triangles is luscious, but what wins the day is the honey-whipped cream laced with ginger and orange zest. It’s simple, but just sublime—don’t miss it.
And I can’t fail to mention the allure of the carefully designed space. First of all, as you approach, look up. The underside of the canopy features an enthralling assortment of mammoth, brightly-colored flowers. Even though we’re all vaccinated, we’re happy that there’s a spacious outdoor patio accessible through the sleek modern space. We pass by eight huge monitors grouped into two quartets at one end. The indoor-outdoor bar also makes a distinct impression—with a floating cage above—glistening with bottles and upside-down bar glasses reflecting neon blue.
The pandemic took a heavy toll on the restaurant world. Cruz’s Seminole Heights flagship, Ichicoro Ramen survived through takeout and delivery, but St. Pete’s wonderful Ichicoro Ane is still shuttered. Cruz’s takeaway for the industry is that in order to be sustainable and profitable, to-go operations will be essential for most restaurants’ survival; fast casual is a more nimble model than fine dining. And with Gangchu, he’s hit the bullseye.
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