For years Lafayette parents could take their children to a bowling alley on Johnston Street and then wrap up the outing with Mexican food at Ponchos, which was just a few doors over in the strip mall. It made for a cheap evening that appealed to children. Ponchos was something of a bustling Mexican food extravaganza with a cafeteria line, salad bar, and flags at the tables to indicate when the waiters should bring out their baskets of hot sopapillas drizzled with honey. The rather large dining room was broken up by tile and stucco partitions, and the walls were hung with sombreros. Predictably, the food was mediocre, except for those sopapillas - their memory still squeezes that soft little spot somewhere between heart and palate.
Recently, under new management the space was converted into Seoul Asiana, a restaurant serving Korean and Asian specialties. In the transition the adobe white walls were muted by lowering the lights, Chinese scroll paintings went up where sombreros once hung, and soft oriental music has replaced the stir of activity that was Ponchos. Its tranquil, but make no mistake about it this place has a lot more going for it than inviting atmosphere. It is turning out sauces that put new meaning into words like subtle and savory, although spicy is more often the appropriate adjective. And where the menu says crispy, diners will be treated to perfectly fried items with light crunch but without greasy aftertaste.
Starters at Seoul Asiana include Honey Spice Wings and Yaki Mandoo. The latter is something of a pot sticker, served either steamed or fried. My table chose steamed and they were very good beside a dark-red pepper and soy dipping sauce. The meat on the honey spice wings was pulled back to resemble a lollipop and they were served on a bed of wonderfully crisp, fried taro root. Great presentation. The honey sauce had real dimension, building from honey but nicely seasoned and it finished with a subtle blend of flavors. After sharing the appetizers, we had Sea Salad and there we should have stopped. It was a heaping plate of shrimp, jelly fish tendrils, lotus root, bean sprouts and fine strips of a very mild radish. The dressing was a mystery, very light, probably orange-flavored rice vinegar. Being ready for glutton punishment, we moved on to the Seoul Asianas signature dish, crispy fried whole red snapper. The head is left on and it seems to impart extra flavor to the flesh of this pricey delicacy (a whopping $27, but it is the whole fish). There were other less expensive entrees and a slate of rich soup items like Hot Pot for two with shrimp, squid, scallops, mussels, fish cake, napa cabbage, mushrooms, snow peas and cauliflower served on hot pot.
There is much uncharted territory on the menu. We hope to return for more judicious samplings so that we wont need to waddle home after another eyes-too-big-for-your-stomach fest. A nice feature besides the food, is that the partitions are topped with plants so that the tables nest in semi private alcoves. Seoul Asiana does not feel as large as it is. It offers a quiet, intimate atmosphere for small groups to share the dishes family style. So maybe, after all, it has come full circle to another family restaurant with a very different and unique personality.
One caveat: This menu does not translate well to a buffet. The better choices are only good served immediately and in portions, rather than globbed together in big chaffing dishes. I have talked to those who went for lunch and liked the price at $6, but left underwhelmed by the food. To be delighted, try it at dinner.