There’s this place in Philadelphia called the Café Soho. It is, admittedly, a little strange: funny red chairs, Christmas lights, a mix between a lounge and living room. But this local oddity may well have launched the city's Korean food movement.
For many years, Korean food was the purview of immigrants and “adventure eaters,” says Craig Laban, a food critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But then, people started making late-night pitstops to Cafe Soho. They were drawn by the cheap pitchers of beer, but they stayed for the big foil-lined bowls of chicken wings. People started talking about it; there were write-ups on blogs. Owner Seue Chong says their business has tripled in the last three years. “We’re growing mostly by word of mouth,” her sister Jin explains. “People heard about us, they read on Yelp.”
Eaters, but also restaurateurs. Korean is making its way from ethnic neighborhoods into the city's A-list eateries. Korean foods feature on the menu of the veritable Meritage, a French-Asian fusion restaurant. An Israeli chef launched a restaurant for Korean fried chicken and donuts. “They were totally inspired by Café Soho,” Laban says. “There was a Korean awakening.”
The success of Korean food in Philadelphia is part of a larger story of how the city has been able to cultivate a wide-ranging international food scene. Former Inquirer food critic Rick Nichols told Zagat that the city is an destination. Much more culinarily advanced, he argues, than Washington or Boston. "People [here] are curious eaters," Laban says. "They don't just stick with what they know."
Here's why. For one thing, Philadelphia is a veritable capital of the small, scrappy restaurant – rents are cheap, and up-and-coming chefs can afford to open little 35-seaters (many of which are BYOB). The city also hosts one of America's fastest-growing (and most diverse) immigrant populations.
But there's something else: Philadelphia has a relatively young population. And that's important, according to Krishnendu Ray, an NYU professor who studies the relationship between food and immigration. There's this tipping point in the life of an ethnic restaurant. Ray calls it the "hipster realm." It's the moment when outsiders—usually younger, adventurous types in search of something cheap and different—start frequenting a place and creating buzz about it. It's happening now nationally to Korean food and Chinese food, the "up-scaling of a cuisine."
It usually takes about three generations for this transition to take, Ray says, and it often coincides with an ethnic group doing better financially and moving out of poverty. Some cuisines—like Greek—are hitting their peak. Others—Japanese and French—have always had an international reputation as food for businessmen. Hence, owners can attract a broad crowd off-the-bat.
Philadelphia has these young eaters. And the city is relatively small, which means most of them can easily make it to different neighborhoods. "In Philadelphia," Ray says, "much more innovative things happen."