The space along NW 23rd Street that houses Chae’s modern Korean cuisine is a good one – airy, lots of natural light, wood and stone, two patios, several TVs and an inviting bar. And an orchid. That single cluster of blossoms is the only decorative element so far, but far from the only source of visual appeal for diners: The kitchen’s creations are gorgeous collocations of color in addition to being thoroughly delicious, so it’s doubly rewarding to focus on your plate.
This is true from the beginning of the meal: The pickled sampler’s mix of textures and vibrant colors includes thinly sliced red onions, batonnet-cut beets and cross-sections of cucumber with a nice lingering pop of flavor thanks to being laid in a piquant chili sauce. The pork egg rolls have that perfect crackle and snap under the teeth, and the creamy drizzle of sizzling spicy sauce helps elevate them to stardom. The shrimp buns are divine: Tempura shrimp with a few flecks of jalapeño and a dab of sauce, folded into a soft, slightly chewy strip of bread like a tiny pillowy taco. Their cousins that come with pork belly inside are fine, but the shrimp are downright dangerous; you’ll be tempted to order more, and then more after that, and then some to cram into your pockets for the road.
As far as I can testify, you should get good results from any entrée, but I’ll happily make three particular recommendations:Iron Bibimbap – a bowl of varied vegetables and short ribs on a bed of toasted crunchy rice, designed to be stirred together with the accompanying egg so it’s all blended and delicious – especially when you add some gochujang, which is a sort of fermented chili sauce (you so rarely encounter “pungent” used as a compliment).
Braised Short Ribs – this is a beauty of a dish; the namesake miniature slabs of beef are delectably tender, and share space in the rich gravy with small potatoes, Brussels sprouts and carrots, all on a bed of kimchi-flavored sweet potatoes (I’m not usually a kimchi fan, but it’s a background player in this blend, merely adding a little extra savor and lingering tang at the back of the palate).
Pajeon – an enormous fritter with a fairly light, airy consistency that mostly serves to hold together and provide a little extra dimension to a tasty heap of shrimp, squid and mussels, topped with egg, bacon flecks and fresh greens. It also smells fantastic, thanks in large part to the zesty lime aioli.
One note about execution: If you only eat in places that are completely consistently perfect, you’re going to go hungry – a lot. Restaurants have many moving parts, and a number of things that can (and eventually will) go wrong; what’s more important is how the staff reacts. At our lunch, the waitress apologized that they happened to be out of tofu that day. One of our party – just a random group off the street as far as they knew – is a pescetarian, and when she made a pouty face in disappointment, the waitress asked about her diet, went to talk to the chef and came back with his offer to whip up some flaky and delicate tempura snapper tacos. (Which were delicious, by the way. We suggested they be added to the menu, so if they’re on there by the time you read this, you’re welcome.) And within a few minutes, both she and he individually stopped by to make sure the substitution had turned out all right. That’s the kind of customer care it’s impossible not to appreciate.
By the end of that first meal, we were already talking about how soon we would come back. When I was visiting solo for the third time in a week and a half (Research! Honest!), as I sat polishing off a family-sized pajeon by myself (Research!) I heard the waitress ask the next table, “Is everything delicious over here?” One of the foursome replied, “Mmm, yes. Does anyone ever say no?” The waitress blinked for a moment and said, “Oh, um … No!”
I hope that remains the case; I’d really like to see this place take off and become a local fixture. It’s absolutely worth trying, whether or not they ever hang a painting on the wall.
1933 NW 23rd St, OKC | 405.600.9040 | facebook.com/chaeokc
► Libation Information
If you’re in the mood for a beverage, Daniel notes that he and his chef de cuisine chose the menu’s dishes based on how well they pair with soju, the Korean rice liquor he calls “our national treasure.” Get set up with a Jinro-laced cocktail and enjoy.