There hasn’t been much buzz about Republic Diner + Sojubang since it emerged in the space that once housed Witchcraft Tavern & Provisions. Witchcraft Tavern closed in October, and Republic Tavern opened after a short transition phase under the same owners, Delicious Concepts. It’s the same company that’s behind Pink’s Pizza, Shepherd Park Draught House and Lola.
The neighboring residents, though, apparently know all about Republic Diner and love it. On a Thursday night, the place was packed, and we felt lucky to snag two seats at the bar. Maybe the locals just don’t want everyone else to know about it so their favorite watering hole and Korean diner won’t get more packed than it already is.
Outside is a covered patio where folks relax on picnic benches, sipping pints of beer and enjoying casual bowls of bibimbap and kimchi fried rice. Loyal dogs lie next to their masters’ and mistresses’ feet, hoping a french fry or two might come their way.
Inside, the atmosphere is a mix of dive bar and short-order grill. In fact, the flattop grill, oven and burners are set up in a corner right behind the bar. The minute guests walk in, they’re hit with the intoxicating scent and sound of sizzling meat. It is a warm welcome that incites instantaneous hunger.
That tempting meat ends up on many of the classic Korean dishes. The marinated rib eye is destined for bulgogi, bibimbap and japchae, a dish of crystal noodles made of sweet-potato starch that includes stir-fried meat and vegetables. Chicken is seasoned, crispy-fried and served in a dish called yangnyeom chicken with rice, kimchi and braised radish greens.
For a full-fledged Korean meal, bring a friend and order the $24 wang galbi (or “king ribs”). The tender, sliced short ribs, grill-marked and with slightly charred edges, are served on a hot cast-iron pan. The flat bones are stacked underneath the pile of meat, a nicety in case there are any nibbles still clinging to them. Alongside is a well-fried egg, with a golden yolk innocent and unmarred on a field of an opaque, brown-edged white.
Then the server sets down dish after dish of the small sides collectively called banchan: spicy cabbage kimchi, black beans, marinated bean sprouts, seaweed, pickled daikon, a big bowl of white rice, and sambal oelek, a spicy pepper paste. A plate of cool, fresh Boston lettuce leaves is served alongside in case diners want to make wraps. We called for small bowls instead, filled them with rice and topped them with dabs of hot and salty sauces, kimchi and warm meat, reloading as needed.
The diner next to us at the bar stared enviously at our wealth. “That looks amazing,” he said. “I’ve been coming here for months and have never had that.” On the other hand, we had already noticed his fine bowl of bulgogi, and that’s a sensible meal for a lone diner.
Chef Jordan Asher consulted on Republic Tavern’s Korean menu, a natural fit considering he’d just parted ways with now-closed Dosi Restaurant & Soju Bar, which also served a Korean menu. However, Delicious Concepts didn’t have a dire need for Asher’s services — at least not in that capacity. When we interviewed Asher about his work at Republic Diner last fall, he said that Delicious Concepts' owner Ken Bridge “is half Korean and is really knowledgeable of the cuisine. It seems fitting for me to be a part of it, but he has the vision and recipes already.” (It turned out that where Asher was actually needed was at the helm of forthcoming Ritual, in the old El Cantina Superior spot at 602 Studewood.)
As with the wang galbi, food is often served in searingly hot cast iron. Even when the dishes are ensconced in protective wooden holders, it’s a marvel that the wood-topped tables don’t all get marred with burns and scars. A hot cast-iron bowl, though, is the key for serving proper dolsot bibimbap. The bottom of the bowl is covered with a thick layer of broken rice, and bibimbap is best when it gets nice and brown on the bottom. On top of the rice are a sunny-side-up egg; slices of tender beef that spend time marinading in soy sauce, sesame oil and garlic before hitting the grill; lightly pickled carrots; sprouts; and wilted spinach. It’s a bit of an achievement to both mix the contents to cook the egg and disturb the bottom as little as possible, thus ensuring a nice brown crust.
Republic Diner + Sojubang falters when it comes to the second part of its name. Sojubang means “soju room,” and unfortunately, some of the infused soju was not very good. Soju is a spirit similar to vodka that is distilled from one of a variety of sources, such as rice, barley, wheat or sweet potatoes.
On a shelf behind the bar are five big glass jars. Four of them are filled with soju and one of four ingredients or combinations: lemon and ginger; cucumber and mint; raspberries and blueberries; and pineapple. The contents of the fifth jar tend to vary. On our visits, it was a combination of bell, jalapeño and serrano peppers.
The infused soju is available as a flight of four, and we tried all except the cucumber and mint. By far, the hot pepper soju was the best and inspired dreams of soju Bloody Marys. The pineapple infusion was simple but good. The flavors of the other two were rather offensive. The prominent flavor in the lemon-ginger was of bitter white pith. The mixed-berry soju was most reminiscent of liquid cold medicine for kids. There’s commercially bottled, neutral soju here as well — Chamisul and Jinro 24. These are reliable but not exciting.
Beer seemed by far the most fitting partner for the hearty, spicy dishes. Two Korean beers are offered: Cass and O.B. Premier. Both are pale lagers — Korean equivalents of Lone Star or Pabst Blue Ribbon. There’s also Asahi and Sapporo from Japan and a goodly number of American craft breweries represented, including Deschutes, Avery, Victory and Houston’s own Saint Arnold, Karbach and Brash.
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Good beer also goes great with a burger, and Republic Diner has an exquisite one. The KO burger is a thick patty lightly glazed with teriyaki sauce and topped with cabbage kimchi and a fried egg. The spread is an aioli that includes the sweet-hot and slightly pungent fermented soybean and pepper paste known as gochujang. It’s a monster of a sandwich, and there’s no shame at all in splitting this with a friend. The hand-cut fries that come with it are just right, too: crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with just the right amount of salt.
Republic Diner + Sojubang is a rustic, down-to-earth gem, and it’s fantastic to have authentic Korean food in the Heights. Finding available parking and seating is a challenge on busy nights, so the best bet for newbies is to visit Sundays through Wednesdays when the place isn’t already packed with regulars. Of course, it’s likely that army of regulars is just going to keep growing.
Republic Diner + Sojubang
1221 West 11th, 832-649-3601. Kitchen hours (bar stays open later on some nights): 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Mandu (fried dumplings) $6
Sundubu jjigae $10
Dolsot bibimbap $11
KO burger $12
Wang galbi $24
Infused soju flight of four $20
O.B. premier beer $8