Cafe Soho on out-there Cheltenham Avenue has been the recipient of serious love lately, some well-earned attention. Streets is talkin’, and what was once a whispered-about niche spot known only by a few ardent fans happy to keep this place their secret forever is now squinting in the blinding spotlight shined on them courtesy of a name-drop by Zahav/Xochitl/Percy Street BBQ chef Michael Solomonov in Food + Wine magazine. The buzz is deafening, and Soho is in the midst of a transformation from relative unknown to much gabbed-about superstar amongst foodies and trend worshippers.
What they’re gabbing about is the unbelievably delicious Korean fried chicken, well worth the drive out to this unexpectedly loungy space—all reds and blacks and shiny surfaces set to the beat of thumping hip-hop—in the middle of an otherwise pretty depressing Northeast Philly block.
The mysteries of this meticulously prepaired Eastern bird are legendary among its fans. It’s twice-fried, each time at a lower temperature than its Yankee counterpart, and sheathed in a whisper-thin layer of flour that allows the skin to crisp up as much as the crust. The double trip through the hot oil and requisite resting period between the two allows the meat to remain impossibly moist and the skin shatteringly delicate. Best of both worlds.
An order of plain fried chicken brings a foil-lined dish of 20 pieces that handily disproves the lie that Philly is a city free of decent wings. They’re excellent on their own and even better when dragged through the bowl of accompanying sauce, a pretty straightforward mix of black vinegar, scallion, garlic and soy that’s a little sweet, a little tart and a little salty in ways that never overpower the flavor of the chicken.
You can get soy-garlic and spicy versions of the fried chicken too. Both will make you curl your toes and force you a bit further back in your deeply cushioned seat.
Soy-garlic chicken finds a balance between sweet and tart that hasn’t been seen since Cyndi Lauper’s heyday. Each bite leaves your lips barely sticky, a fine glaze of salty, sweet-nutty film on your teeth. You’ll want to rinse this down with a bottle of OB (Oriental Brewery), a lager brewed in South Korea, to clear the path for your next hit. The OB is a good match here for the same reason Bud can be a good match for fried chicken—it’s crisp, refreshing and lets the food play the starring role. It ain’t great beer, but it’s great with fried food.
The spicy chicken is menacingly red, and not for amateurs. Still, for all the heat it generates, the flavor of delicate chicken is front and center. Most dishes come in orders of 20, though you have the option of doing a 10-10 split with the flavored versions.
For all its avian acumen, Cafe Soho also does itself proud with soups—just be careful not to take up too much precious chicken room in your stomach with the stuff. An order of spicy seafood stew is a nice starter, its roasted-tomato-tasting base reminiscent of some kind of Korean minestrone. It’s packed with a generous menagerie of seafood, each mussel and squid and the rest cooked to optimal tenderness. It’s expensive, though, at $15.99. A better deal is the dduk lamyun, rice cake and ramen, with its starchy and well-rounded broth.
Adventurous eaters, or anyone just wanting something to snack on while waiting for the chicken to finish its laps through the oil in the kitchen, would do well to try the dried squid on offer at Soho. There’s no hiding what this is, and it’s definitely not for everyone. But if you’re into the sweet funkiness of old, dry seafood, you’ll love it. Paired with a cold, crisp beer, it’s an amazing, unique food experience.
Practically everything at Soho sings, only a slightly overdone warai pork cutlet didn’t quite shine. But that hardly matters: The chicken here is worth all the buzz, all the foamed-mouth obsession. Its magnetic pull, its ballooning reputation, its ability to draw eaters from all over the city—it’s all well-founded, its stripes solidly earned. If you like fried chicken, this is your manifest destiny.
468 W. Cheltenham Ave.
Cuisine: Korean, with a serious focus on the famous fried chicken.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 3pm-2am; Sat., 1pm-2am; Sun., 1pm-midnight.
Price range: For the chicken, which is what it’s all about, it’s $20 for 20 pieces. Everything else is generally in the sub-$20 range.
Atmosphere: Energy and vibe to spare. Quite possibly the coolest chicken joint around.
Food: Fried-chicken Nirvana.
Service: Reasonably helpful, but don’t expect too much love and attention.
Dinner with Luke Palladino