Phorale, which opened quietly this past May in a tiny corner of a convenience store in South Park, is trying to answer a thorny question: Can you call your food fusion and still be proud of it? Owners Jimmy Bui and Young Cho are Vietnamese and Korean respectively, and they are unabashed about mixing cuisines you might not normally think go together. I randomly stumbled upon Phorale when I stopped by the South Park Grocery to satisfy a Cheez-It craving and happened to see fresh sriracha bottles on tables in the previously abandoned dining nook.
They were closed, but I was curious, so I grabbed a paper menu. I was instantly intrigued by their mascot: a dragon eating pho in a sombrero. After perusing their offerings—pho, banh mi, egg rolls, dressed fries, and a Philly cheesesteak, all augmented by Mexican-inspired sauces and with heavy Korean influence—and determining that they were indeed attempting to be a bulgogi-serving, pho-simmering, sombrero-wearing dragon of a restaurant, I was left wondering, "Can you even do all that?"
When I returned for an answer, it was a Saturday afternoon and they'd had a run on everything, which meant that I was relegated to the Fuego ($8), a spicy pork banh mi, and the Chimichino ($5), an appetizer consisting of two spicy pork egg rolls with avocado crema and salsa verde. Apparently, I was in the mood for spicy pork, whether I liked it or not. Luckily, I was, and I did.
Bui filled a pan with spicy pork and onions and threw it on a burner, effusively guiding my dining companion and I through his process, explaining the details of the various dishes we wouldn't be eating, and waxing philosophical about food and fusion all the while. At Phorale, counter dining is the way to go: Talking to Bui and Cho about their food is every bit as enjoyable as eating it. Once my friend and I were outed as fellow food lovers, Bui excitedly regaled us with tales of a planned dish of Korean chicken and waffles, consisting of a full-size fried wing done with spicy Korean barbecue sauce—which he insisted we try a spoonful of—resting atop pajeon, those delightfully oily Korean green onion pancakes.
The crispy rolls, unlike the premade ones in your average Little Saigon deli, were filled with pork straight from the pan and rolled up in rice paper right before our eyes. The pork having been cooked through in the pan, the egg rolls went for a short dip in the fryer to crisp up the paper, and then into one of Phorale's boat-shaped plates. The prows of these boats, which are divided from the main plate, serve as built-in sauce containers. As far as precious decor goes, I'll take cute boat plates over superfluous reclaimed wood any day.
The banh mi come in bolillo rolls from La Ideal Panaderia, three doors down from the store. There's a reason chef Monica Dimas used to drive down to South Park to pick them up personally when she opened Tortas Condesa, before outgrowing their tiny capacity: La Ideal's bolillos are perfectly pillowy, satisfyingly chewy, and sufficiently girthy to contain Phorale's ample fillings.
The Fuego came in a bolillo cut carefully from the side, with the succulent, tangy pork tamped down under a layer of crisp, bright banh mi veggies, all basted liberally with cilantro aioli. The layering of the sandwich—which made for a very pleasant spicy meat bite, followed by a bright veggie bite—was intentional, Bui said. Though my companion and I were initially disappointed that we didn't get to try different sandwiches, the Fuego burned that regret out of our brains. Indeed, it was so satisfying that I ordered one to take with me for, um, further research.
On another visit, I tried the Gringo, their version of a Philly cheesesteak. I was pleasantly surprised by its lightness. A good Philly cheesesteak is a thing of beauty, but often an instant nap. The Gringo marries the best elements of the classic with the more refreshing qualities of a banh mi. Aside from the delightful interplay of fresh banh mi veggies—daikon, carrot, cucumber, and jalapeño—the bulgogi meat is well complemented by their sweet and spicy sauce, which I was pleased to discover is sweet in a rich, musky way rather than a cloying, too-much-hoisin way.
However, if I thought I'd escaped an involuntary postprandial nap, I thought wrong. For the sake of journalism, I also ordered the dressed fries. One order consists of about a half a fryer basket of well-seasoned curly fries, a good three ounces of your chosen meat, a healthy dollop of avocado crema, a scoop of salsa verde, a dousing of habanero béchamel, a zigzag of cilantro aioli, and a dusting of fresh cilantro. It's a lot. If not eaten moderately, it's akin to taking an Ambien while reading Ayn Rand. These fries are not meant to be consumed by one person—especially not one person who has just eaten a full sandwich. I opted for bulgogi as my meat choice, and ended up eating it all.
I never got a chance to try their classic pho because, true to form, they'd given it a full fusion makeover the very day I came in hungover and in desperate need of broth. Indeed, they'd changed the menu at the advice of a visiting Zagat reviewer, who said, essentially, that many restaurants offered pho and Phorale needed to differentiate.
What they served me was technically pho, though you wouldn't recognize it as such. Cho said that as long as there is broth, vermicelli noodles, and the proper veggies, it qualifies. But the similarities between Phorale's pho ($7) and the traditional musky, beefy soup we Seattleites love so well end there. The broth is a vegetarian Japanese/Korean combo, consisting of a dashi base with Korean mushroom powder. Instead of thinly sliced eye round, more of that excellent rib eye bulgogi makes an appearance, accompanied by a small cluster of feathery enoki mushrooms and a fried egg. It's liberally sprinkled with slices of Thai chilies, as opposed to jalapeños. The result is magnificent—a fresh, airy take on pho, but with every bit as much hangover-erasing power.
Phorale bets big on fusion, and it pays off. I think that has more to do with Bui and Cho clearly caring about food than with any overarching truths about fusion. They talk about food, they think about food, they like to experiment with the ingredients they have on hand, and they are listening to their customers. If fusion has become trite, I think it's only because those who offer it are often more motivated by dollar signs than by making the perfect daikon slaw. Phorale, for it's part, suffers from no such problem. There is a lot of exciting food being made behind their little red-linoleum-bedecked nook—and not many people seem to know about this place. Yet.