SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — A recently relocated Northerner has rolled his new eatery onto the local dining scene, focusing on his background in Korean cooking and refined sushi-making.
Sang Woo launched Seoul Sushi two weeks ago and of the handful of sites he’s parked at so far, he’s sold out of his 16-item menu.
“I’m hitting the numbers I expected,” he said, churning out roughly 50 Korean BBQ bowls, 60 sushi rolls and 40 side dishes throughout his first four events.
“In the Castle Bay community — that’s actually my neighborhood — I sold out in two hours,” Woo added.
Born in Korea, his family emigrated to Pittsburgh when he was 5 years old, and owned a Korean restaurant, Young Bin Kwan, and an Asian market in Pennsylvania for two decades.
“I got my basic training from the chefs who worked for my parents,” Woo said.
Once they retired, Woo began his own journey leading kitchens for various restaurants.
He worked at Pittsburgh Fish Market, an American restaurant that had a live oyster and sushi bar, for almost seven years. Thereafter, he held the post as sushi and sous chef for Nakama Japanese Steakhouse.
“We were doing $14 million a year and voted best sushi restaurant 11 years in a row,” he said of the steakhouse.
Woo was part of a seven-chef team at the beginning, but oversaw 15 to 20 sushi chefs from various skill levels over the years.
“So you get to learn by working with other creative chefs and different backgrounds — that knowledge you share helps everyone,” he said.
The restaurant had satellite establishments that Woo helped open, including express eateries and kiosks in the stadium where the Steelers play. Woo launched his own express and when he decided to move to North Carolina, his son took over the operation.
But as Woo relocated to Hampstead, it wasn’t long before he found he couldn’t stay away from the industry.
“It’s what I do,” he said.
He decided to start Seoul Sushi food truck rather than operate a brick-and-mortar, to keep overhead low — he has hired one person to help him cook and a few rotating cashiers. He preps all of his ingredients at the commissary kitchen at CJ’s on Castle Hayne Road.
The menu is tight and focused, with layers of flavor, always fresh, he said. For instance, the California roll comes with fresh lump crab rather than the imitation variety; however, for those that like the surimi seafood, it is also offered.
“Some people still really like it,” he said. “It is a very integrated part of Asian culture, used in so many different recipes. But the real crab California roll is selling better.”
It’s one of 10 rolls on the menu, including the traditional Philly, tuna or salmon rolls, and veggie rolls. Woo’s specialty Hanalei roll blends in Korean flair, consisting of lump crab, eel, avocado, cream cheese, green onion, and sesame seeds, tempura-battered and deep fried, topped with spicy Korean BBQ sauce and sweet soy.
The sauces are homemade; the BBQ consists of a Gochujang base. The sweet and savory red chili paste is made of fermented soybeans and a mainstay in Korean cooking.
“It’s got that sweetness and spice, a little bit of vinegar — it’s just a flavor bomb,” Woo said.
The bowls are basically a take on bibimbap — rice, topped with accouterments of sautéed vegetables, chili paste, and protein, blanketed with a fried egg. Woo offers bulgogi beef, chicken, spicy pork, veggie and tofu. Each bowl is punctuated by flavors of spinach, carrots, cucumber kimchi, pickled radish, avocado, green onions and sesame seeds, with the Korean BBQ sauce or garlic soy.
“Then you have to fry an egg, over easy, to order,” he said. “I debated whether or not to do that, but the people who know crave it, you know? It’s really simple food and very simple seasoning.”
The menu also includes Korean-style wings. They’re double fried, though not breaded. Woo coats them in cornstarch so they become extra crispy before dunking them in one of three sauces — Korean Spicy BBQ, sweet soy or sweet chile.
Woo has booked 100 events throughout the rest of the year. Half were scheduled within his first week of operation.
“Everybody was very receptive and interested in trying something different,” he said.
Seoul Sushi will park WHERE in May and June. Menu prices range from $7 to $15.
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