Explore Reading finds a buzzing atmosphere and some hot grilling action at Soju, the independent Korean barbecue restaurant in new King’s Walk development The Village.
If you’ve walked through King’s Walk at any time in the last year, you’ll have noticed things are changing in that once forlorn development. In 2016, the new owner announced he wanted to turn the walk into ‘a culinary destination with authentic food and restaurants’. Since then a new wave of international and interesting restaurants, such as Bolan Thai and Pho, have opened up.
Soju opened at the King Street entrance to the walk in March, and is an independent Korean barbecue restaurant. It’s a cuisine which we haven’t seen much of in Reading. Gooi Nara, opened at the end of 2016 on Whitley Street, but this is the first Korean spot in the town centre.
The best Korean barbecue joints I’ve visited, in London and Seoul, are all pine and light, with big hubcap-sized charcoal grills at your table – like a cosy, intimate, but definitely clothes-on sauna. At Soju, they’ve gone for sleek and minimal: dark tables, brown walls, restaurant name up in lights. It’s all a bit uninspiring, and a dim comparison to the warm wicker-and-wood space at Pho, just across the walk.
It’s ok to ignore the decor though, as the real fun becomes clear when you sit down at your table. Each one has its own built in electric barbecue plate. There’s no bare coals, but that’s probably for the best if it’s your first time grilling.
If this is your first time exploring Korean food, the menu at Soju doesn’t make it seem easy. Dish names are all listed in Korean, the English subtitles aren’t especially descriptive and it’s not immediately clear what you should focus on. I arrived five minutes after the two other friends in my party and received a panicked message en route: “Hurry, we’re going to need your help with this menu”.
Diving in, we found four pages of appetisers, noodle dishes, stews and side dishes. But the real focus here is the barbecue. You get involved by ordering up plates of raw, marinated meat or seafood, which you cook yourself on the grill.
Beef is a staple, so we opted for the gal-bi which is sliced short rib, richly-marinated in a light, sweet soy sauce. The beef slices came out a deep dark red and marbled through with juicy veins of flavoursome fat. We also chose the chicken thigh, served bulgogi-style, which is marinated in a mixture of soy, sesame oil and garlic. It was slightly sweet, but deep and complex.
Both of our choices arrived as four long sheets, each thinly-sliced, as if they’ve been put through a pencil sharpener. We also were given barbecue tongs and an industrial-looking pair of scissors, so we could cut slices to our ideal size. It was surprisingly fun, and a little bit soothing, to rotate all the tiles of beef until they turn crispy, watching the fat sizzle and curl up at the edges. These plates start at £7.50 and go up to £9.50, which may seem pricey for what is really just a plate of raw meat. But portions are big, both meats were good quality and they kept us surprisingly full.
If you’re up for the full Seoul experience, order banchan, or side dishes to go with your meat. If this were Korea, our table would have been presented with a tray of these for free before even placing an order. But here, we only got small bowls of spicy BBQ and soy sauces and a dish of sliced chilli and onion in vinegar.
The best ones we had to choose off the menu, and pay for individually. It’s definitely worth getting a plate of the kimchi (£3), a pickled cabbage dish, which pops up in everything in Korean cooking. This version was squelchy and red, with a gentle sour note, just the thing to offset richness from the beef.
You should also order the ssam (£5.50), which means ‘to wrap’ in Korean. It’s a tray of assorted lettuce leaves, cucumber and carrot sticks. You take a lettuce leaf, top it up with your choice of veggies and spices and plop a sizzling piece or two of barbecued goodness in the middle. Then wrap it all up like a leafy burrito and dunk it in your favourite sauce. We got a depth of flavours altogether: juicy, fatty beef blended with warming spices, all balanced out by a crisp, refreshing veggie bite. There was enough meat that we kept at this for a while, trying out all possible flavour combinations.
Elsewhere, choices for vegetarians are on the slim, and oddly expensive side. If you’re not a meat eater and you want to join in the hot barbecue action, your choice is a family-sized assorted-vegetable platter or an equally large mushroom plate, which check in at £30 each. It’s odd because the rest of the menu isn’t wildly overpriced. We didn’t try them, but they had better be some really good mushrooms for that price.
Despite that shock to the wallet, the vegetarian in our party didn’t come away disappointed. She opted to skip the barbecue (and averted her eyes while I chopped up raw meat with abandon) and choose more of the veggie-friendly appetisers and hot dishes for herself.
Of these, the kimchi jeon (£7), a thick wheat pancake mixed with kimchi and chopped vegetables was the standout. Crunchy on the outside, spongy in the middle, it has a gentle blend of chilli and pickles. Ours was a touch dry to eat alone, but dunked in the accompanying vinegar it picked up a softer texture. “Do you think I could just order another two of these?” my table’s resident vegetarian said at one point, while she slathered it in some bbq sauce and topped it with a slice of the cabbage kimchi.
The actual word soju means a type of clear rice-wine alcohol and is Korea’s national tipple. Fortunately there’s plenty of that on the menu too. Here they have Jinro (£8.50), a brand which comes in an iconic green bottle and is everywhere in Seoul. It’s less harsh than sake and is usually drunk neat. It’s worth a sip to cut through the rich meat. If you’re not up for neat liquor with your dinner (why not!?) there’s Hite beer or Peroni, and a small but surprisingly good French wine list, the Chablis (£21.50) proved a light and crisp accompaniment.
Service was quick and efficient and our young and cheerful waitress smiled encouragingly at my attempts at Korean. She was also kitted out with a smartwatch and matching tablet (both Samsung, naturally) on which she tapped out our order with impressive speed. She then turned the grill plate on, instructed us to wait until the light changed and left. Drinks and dishes started to appear only moments later. After that though, we were basically on our own.
I visited Soju on a Monday evening and it was surprisingly packed, with couples, groups of work colleagues and three tables full of Asian students. Despite the dull brown setting, the room was buzzing with diners getting involved in the grilling, chatting, laughing and debating which fillings to pack into their lettuce wraps.
As a big Korean barbecue fan, I was excited when I first heard about the opening of Soju. But I put off visiting for months after being disappointed by the less-than-exciting room setup when I peeked through the window at King’s Walk. I needn’t have worried. The room is bland, yes. But the menu isn’t.
Dishes are exciting and nothing has been Anglicised, as so often happens in Chinese restaurants in the UK. The interactive element made for a fun and enjoyable evening, full of new flavours and variety. Despite their initial nervousness over the menu, my two friends left telling me they couldn’t wait to go back and sample the rest of the menu (we were too full to even get to the bimbimbap, or stone rice bowls, one of my favourite dishes). I’ll definitely be joining them.
Dinner for three people with wine: £72
Find it: 9-11 The Village, King Street, Reading RG1 2HG | 0118 334 8162 | View website.
After a post dinner drink? Check out our review of The Hop Leaf