Four Korean Pubs for Your Late Night Dining Pleasure

Pochas for late-night snacking

Steamed squid at Pocha Is Back (Photos by Evan Rodriguez)

Whether you’re careening through the night, the street lights becoming just a little too fuzzy, or just off of work, a late night meal and a(nother) drink is vital.

Sustenance is necessary for the revelers, yes, but more for those who toil away into the night serving others. The neon “open” signs beckon the hospitality workers, first responders, the ones just off the late shift. For these individuals, being able to eat something other than a greasy cheeseburger, tacos, or pizza at 1am is a godsend. Those late-night standards are all noble fare, but variety is the spice of life.

The most satisfying late-night haunts I continually find myself coming back to in North Austin aren’t what you might expect. Not at Jim’s anymore (reduced hours and they never served drinks anyway), Kerbey Lane on the Drag closes at 10pm most nights (a Covid casualty), and then there’s Stars Cafe (7am-3am seven days a week), which still has that funky charm, but it’s just not what it once was.

Instead, I find myself lured by the thud of K-pop, steamed squid, and the succulent fried chicken served at the Korean pubs called pochas. Pochas offer full menus, cold beer, and sometimes liquor beyond the myriad soju flavors always chilling in wait at these spots.

Pochas, or pojangmacha (“covered wagon”), were traditionally mobile street vendors serving hearty snacks and alcohol, bringing food to the Korean masses as they flooded the streets after a long day's work. South Koreans can have an extremely long work day on average, about 10 plus hours is the cap, and South Korea’s government just rolled back a plan to bump that to around 14 hours a day. South Korea’s Millennials and Gen Z workers weren't too keen on the proposed increase. So you can see the evolution of work culture in South Korea giving rise to pochas offering beer and food as workers exit their respective office buildings.

The interior at Pocha Is Back

Here they are indoors, dimly lit, and you’re bound to hear a cover of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” or some other pop classic, but not by any artist you’ll recognize. TVs line the walls playing everything from K-pop music videos to news. These usually aren’t quiet places; a party atmosphere pervades without being intrusive.

There are four pochas all within about five miles of each other, the two in the Crestview neighborhood and two more in the Quail Creek neighborhood, arguably one of the most ethnically diverse places in the city. Pocha Is Back is the newest, Happy Pocha Korean Pub is the eldest, Seoulju is definitely the most lauded by Austin’s food media, and then there’s SOHA, my favorite of the four. SOHA is a tad cheaper than the other three and more conducive to a solo dining experience.

There won’t be tons of glaring variations among the menus besides some slight differences in prices and certain specialty items, but the nuances are really what makes the experience.

At Pocha Is Back, you can order a variety of tempura and katsu dishes, and there's a full bar if you’re feeling froggy. Happy Pocha offers some dishes for a more initiated palate, like braised pig’s feet and fish intestine soup; they also have a full bar. Seoulju has a few vegetarian dishes (one vegan) and makes this explicit on their menu. SOHA offers the most variety of soups and stews, from the ubiquitous military soup (all four pochas serve a version) to the more delicate soybean paste soup with pork. Take note: This food is really meant for sharing.

The fried chicken wings at all four are succulent – I prefer them spicy and sweet – and they’re fried to order, so be patient. SOHA does a boneless version and Seoulju offers a whole bird, which is a must-try. Other staples are steamed egg; intensely flavored soups and stews with beef, mussels, tofu and pork; kimchi fried rice; and genre-bending corn cheese, like esquites (corn off the cob) without the lime juice, but cheesier, and usually sweeter from the addition of sugar.

Seafood abounds, served fried, dried, stir fried, and steamed. The broths are fiery, predominantly seasoned with gochujang (a thick, hot and sweet red pepper paste), sometimes dried shrimp and anchovies, and miso. More often than not you will get cheese in your ramen, little chunks of mozzarella or a whole slice of good ol’ American yellow. Cold Terra is the Korean beer you should be drinking, an Australian malt beer (AGM) brewed in Seoul.

Steamed squid from Pocha Is Back is simple, comforting, and tender with a little chew, each ring and tentacle dipped in the sweet and spicy gochujang. The pork rib soup at SOHA is hearty and spicy; I eat it year-round. It comes with rice, but sometimes I add a side of noodles. Seoulju has more flavors of soju than you could ever imagine, and their fried chicken is especially noteworthy. While all the ramen is pretty similar at each pub, I find Happy Pocha Korean Pub’s the most satisfying, and the ambiance when it’s popping is unparalleled.

The epigraph to David Chang's debut cookbook, Momofuku, is a quote from Ikkyu, a 15th-century Zen Buddhist high priest. It reads, “I have been ten days in this temple and my heart is restless. The scarlet thread of lust at my feet has reached up long. If someday you come looking for me, I will be in a shop that sells fine seafood, a good drinking place or a brothel.” As our temples, more often than not, are our places of work and our laptops these days, pochas provide a late-night respite from the grind. In a city that seems to want to pride itself on its dining options, we are fairly lacking in quality late night options. It’s a wonder Korean pubs haven’t sprung up all over the Capitol City, yet.

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pochas, Pochas Is Back, Happy Pocha, Seoulju, SOHA

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