by Dean McCord
The place is in a run-down mini strip mall scheduled for demolition in the not-too-distant future. It’s between a head shop and an old-school record store. It has the tiniest, most cramped parking lot, perfectly ripe for door dings, fender benders, and lost rearview mirrors. And there’s really not a sign that one could ever see from that parking lot, let alone the road. Just three small letters above the door: S-O-O. This is Soo Café, home of Korean fried chicken. And this humble dive of a restaurant, where the chicken is crunchy and sweet and salty and gooey and piquant, is mine. I found it. It’s my restaurant to share with the world, and I don’t give a damn if it’s been around for a year.
Just like the music geek who has to tell the world about his latest band discovery (yes, that’s me, too), we food lovers are always in search of something new, something not well known, but always, something that is delicious. We want to find a place that has not become popular with the hipsters and the “faux-foodies,” those folks who treat dining like it’s a conquest, adding another notch to their belt of can’t-miss places that they visit once and move on to their next victory.
But for me, it’s not just discovering a place. It’s about popularizing it. Making sure the world knows about it because, I often think, it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a duty. I’ve seen too many places with amazing food close because they just didn’t get enough business. And I’m not going to let that happen with Soo Café. I’m just too selfish, because I want, no, I need, this place to survive.
This is a mom and pop place. The owners are Kyong Ko and Young Jo, first-generation Koreans. And they make killer Korean fried chicken.
What makes it Korean fried chicken? First, they start with a smaller bird. The chicken is then cut into very small pieces and then fried. And fried again. That’s the big secret, the double frying, because it creates a crunch that survives the second thing that makes Korean chicken so memorable: the sauce. Soo Café has three different sauces: the original, sweet sauce that still has a bite to it; the soy garlic, that is sweet and salty and hot and delicious; and the hot and spicy, which I haven’t dared to try. I have four children; I do not need to prove my manhood any longer. Yes, there are other items on the menu, but it all comes back to this chicken. My chicken. And I’m on a mission to tell the world about it.
I dragged a former co-worker here, and she loved it. My 14-year-old son still talks about wanting more Soo’s chicken after I took him there on an early-release day. And I even went there for a business meeting, in part to show off my cool, foodie cred to someone who might think that is a difference-maker. I can’t tell you how many times my other family members have told me that I have yet to take them out for Korean fried chicken yet.
But ultimately, I show off this small restaurant, this gem of a place on Hillsborough Street across from the N.C. State Bell Tower, because I love it, and I want it to stay here forever. I want to say, “I found it, and I introduced it to you, and you introduced it to 10 friends.” They can say that they found it, too, because, really, we need more places like this in our town. I love a fine dining destination as much as anyone, and some of my closest friends are chefs, but this is the type of place that I want to show to the chefs. They get it. They understand amazing food and will support it.
Soo, in its present location, will not survive. It’s just a matter of months before the strip mall is torn down, and I don’t know whether the owners will find another location. They say they want to stay in the area, and I hope they do. It doesn’t need to be a nice place, but it can’t be much worse than where it currently is situated, so I’m looking on the bright side. I don’t want this Korean fried chicken joint to be an ephemeral part of our cuisine. We deserve this delicacy, and I’m going to do my damnedest to make sure that Soo Café becomes an integral part of our food scene for years to come. Because I found it, and it’s mine. And I’m just not ready to let go.
For the time being, Soo Café is at 2106 Hillsborough St.
Dean McCord is a Raleigh resident, a health-care attorney, a father of four reasonably well-adjusted children, and an avid home cook and eater. He is active in a number of local and national organizations, including the Southern Foodways Alliance. He was also the creator of the popular local food blog VarmintBites.