At Cafe Soho, every day feels like Friday.
You can come as you are while becoming your most hedonistic and acerbic self, ideally among people who love and/or like you since Cafe Soho, according to the philosophy of a Friday night spent within its walls, is best enjoyed in the presence of friends. In my case, the kind that will pick you up in their car, let you pick the plan for the rest of the night that will stretch slightly into tomorrow and listen to your complaints about the boring daily life you're escaping until Monday.
Like an exciting Friday night, everything at Cafe Soho is heightened and a little strange. Chicken wings fried twice and brushed with sauce take on the smoothness of marble and the delicacy of glass. Wind chimes and Christmas ornaments dangle from the ceiling without consideration for the breeze or time of year. Cheese appears in places you wouldn't expect.
Mirrors line the ceilings and walls, allowing you to see how comically small you look in the ample booths made of red and black pleather. Blended soju drinks, which you can ladle into a shot glass, invite you to find a cause for celebration, even if that's just the fact that you lived through another week.
On an actual Friday night, you'll find people from near and far simply living life: birthday parties spanning multiple booths lighting up with the taking of selfies; couples in various stages of courtship on dates fidgeting with straw wrappers; families spanning multiple generations deciding on what to share; groups of friends catching up, making fun of each other and comparing observations about the K-Pop music videos that play on Cafe Soho's TVs while using chicken wings and banter to mark the beginning — or end — of their night.
While everyone seems to enjoy Cafe Soho, it is undoubtedly the domain of young people. The buzz of gossip and crushes is palpable in its ether. Petty drama lurks and the thrill of possibility reigns. Braces peek out of shy smiles. The shirts donned by employees — none of whom seem to be above the age of 25 — riff on one of four well-known logos (Champion, Nascar, Thrasher and Supreme) in a clever and ornery way that mainly teens can appreciate.
Yet, despite the presence of so many young people, Cafe Soho's social media presence is bare. I asked the manager, Nina, why and she told me that they used to use social media, but it worked too well — it attracted more guests, which put stress on the staff and increased wait times. Cafe Soho is, essentially, too popular to be on the internet.
All of Cafe Soho's business is the result of word-of-mouth, especially regarding the wings, which draw people from far and wide to eat them, share them and complain about how long it takes to cook them. The wait time for Cafe Soho chicken wings is indeed long, but it's not without good reason. Made in the style of traditional KFC — Korean-fried, not Kentucky — the wings are fried, shaken in a mesh strainer to remove the flaky outer crumbs, fried again at a slightly higher temperature and then brushed individually with a glaze that hardens into a crackly sheath as it touches the hot surface of the wing.
A few diners told me that the amount of time it takes to cook the wings allows the anticipation to build, which makes the wing taste even better when it's finally delivered to the table. This type of diner is rare, though, in their respect for not only what it takes to achieve greatness but their own mental reward system. Nina, the manager of Cafe Soho, agrees that this isn't the typical stance. "People want instant rewards," she says. "People don't understand what it takes to make these wings and then they complain when they aren't made quickly enough."
When it comes to sauce on the wings, most Cafe Soho fans are firmly committed to soy garlic. Spicy is the second most popular choice, followed by Sweet Chili, with Special and Seasoned the least in demand. Sauceless wings known simply as "Fried" have seasoning included in their batter and are served with a cinnamon soy sauce for dipping. All are served on a red ruffled plate accompanied by pickled radish cut into uniform cubes.
At one point in the past, Nina tells me, the wings came topped with cheese. Today, cheese at Cafe Soho can be found in the kimchi fried rice, the cheese ramen and as a topping on the rice cake (known traditionally as ddukbokki). Cheese has become increasingly popular in Korean food in the past 10 to 15 years, especially in Korean street food. This makes sense, as Korean food is known for its emphasis on fermentation and spiciness, which cheese, another fermented product, can both calm and enhance.
The rest of the menu is a trove of joys and mysteries, which includes the pleasing pork belly dunbap, the substantial seafood pancake, the sad kimbap, the endearing potato salad and the truly delightful soju fruit drinks. If you're feeling especially celebratory, you can order an entire bottle of Johnnie Walker Black to your table ( staff tells me this has happened less than a handful of times). In a place that always feels like Friday, the exceeding luxe is ignored.
Instead, simple pleasures are chosen: the wings that are simply delicious with the flamboyant drink with multiple straws. At Cafe Soho, where it's always Friday, you can be both stimulated and placated, jolted and soothed in an attempt to restore yourself and your crew on any day of the week.
DINNER FOR 20
A roundup of great dishes at low-key Philly establishments you definitely need to try this fall. Thank us by telling your server that PW sent you.
Walk two blocks past Pat's and Geno's to find a sandwich with much more promise: a perfect falafel ($4.95) served by people who make it a point to make you feel welcome. Get baklava to make the meal complete. | 947 Federal St. bitars.com
A neighborhood BYOB with charm. Mix and match beef head, beef cheek, beef tongue or chorizo tacos ($3 - $4 each) for ultimate satisfaction. | 1301 N. 5th St. tacoriendorestaurant.com
Known for serving two of the most comforting items known to man, coffee ($2) and dumplings ($8.75 for a sampler), Ray's Cafe is a Chinatown staple that is known for making patrons feel taken care of as they go about their days. | 141 N. 9th St. rayscafe.com
Frequenters opt for the bibimbap ($9.25) at this Korean restaurant with an extensive menu known as the best of its kind in all of University City. | 3801 Chestnut St. koreanafood.com
Cafe Pho Gah Thanh Thanh
Amid a city with a rich and prolific pho scene, Cafe Pho Gah Thanh Thanh stands out for its chicken pho, light and clear broth and lack of menu to order from. | 2539 Kensington Ave. facebook.com/phogathanhthanh