Making snacks for picky kids has an upside. It inspired one entrepreneur to launch her first restaurant.
Hyun Jung Ra, owner of WooRi Korean Fusion Grill on a side street in Arlington Center, will tell you it’s a challenge to come up with dishes that please her 10-year-old and 3-year-old daughters. They’ll eat traditional Korean fare, but also adore french fries, bacon, and anything with cheese. So this working mom (Ra used to manage Koreana Restaurant in Cambridge and JP Seafood Cafe in Jamaica Plain) perfected an array of snacks that her chef-brother, Byung Wook Ra, now cooks at the month-old eatery. Saero Ha, the siblings’ mother, makes the little side dishes called banchan. WooRi means “my home” in Korean and indeed everything here feels homespun.
The space is cheerful, with K-pop playing on the sound system. Ra bought the restaurant from the family who ran the premises as Manna House Korean & Japanese Cuisine. The window coverings, which made passersby wonder if anyone was home, are gone.
From the small plates section of the menu, “love fries” (described as “Korean style fries,” $8) are on offer in beef, chicken, seafood, and veggie versions. We get the beef, and purposely don’t ask our server (whom we later learn is Ra herself) what exactly will be coming to the table. The dish turns out to be soy-marinated grilled beef, minced, formed into meatballs, then battered and fried. The golden nuggets are delicious, served with a soy-lemon dipping sauce sweetened with apple juice (a health-conscious mom trick if we ever saw one). Crispy potato balls ($6) are croquettes the size of arancini, made of creamy mashed spuds with a green pea or two tucked inside each. They emerge from their fat bath lightly crunchy.
One night, the kitchen has run out of cheesy dumplings with spinach and bacon ($6), so we opt for bulgogi flatbread ($8), a delicate crust slathered with mayo and layered with grilled beef and melted mozzarella cheese. “Late-night hangover food,” comments a dining companion, folding it like a pizza slice and making quick work of the drippy dish. More to the table’s liking are SSF crispy dumplings ($6), whose acronym refers to a “spicy stir fry” of meat and clear noodles stuffed into oblong fritters that are lacquered with spicy-sweet chile sauce. These snacks make us crave cold beer (alas, no liquor license here).
Classic Korean entrees are also on the menu. Bibimbap ($15) offers a generous serving of steamed white rice (with a toasty layer of grains at the bottom of the heavy stainless steel bowl), topped with an artful composition of steamed spinach, carrots, zucchini, and a choice of meat or seafood (we get beef) plus an over-easy egg with a runny yolk. It is excellent. The broth cradling fluffy soybean curds in soft tofu Korean stew ($15) could use more heft, but flavors are clean, wholesome, and amply spiked with red chile paste. Pork “kkass” ($15) is the spitting image of Japanese tonkatsu: thin-breaded, hot, crisp cutlets served with a thick savory dipping sauce, altogether down-home.
Thinly sliced fatty pork belly ($18) is grilled, then stir-fried with onion and a brick-red chile sauce, more smoky-sweet than its fiery looks suggest. Tuck the saucy meat and a little hot rice into herbaceous sesame leaves (lettuce also available), dab the bundle with spicy fermented soybean paste, and settle in with this warming dish.
Like any new restaurant, WooRi is working out kinks. One Saturday night, the kitchen is out of many dishes, but we still dine well. On the way out, we spy a 10-year-old and a 3-year-old bound for a table set for staff meal. We hope those girls know how lucky they are.Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.