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Drink Different 

RoHan Lounge

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002
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For years I told people that God himself would have to serve the eviction notice to dislodge me from my rent-controlled apartment in the Mission. I still feel that way, but writing up bars and restaurants across the city has made me realize that certain other neighborhoods would do just fine. If I had a parking spot, I could be happy in bustling enclaves like Polk Gulch, North Beach, or even the Tendernob. The Lower Haight would be awesome: I'd cancel my gym membership and burn calories shaking it five nights a week at the Top. Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill, or West Portal would make for an interesting change of pace. I could even learn to love the Outer Outer Sunset (bonfires on the beach, learning to surf). Still, my first choice would be the Inner Richmond.

I can picture strolling down Clement on Sundays -- dim sum at Tong Palace, or perhaps a funkadelic American brunch at Q, followed by a Bloody Mary at the Bitter End and a trip to New May Wah to stock up on fresh noodles and Chinese greens. Pho would replace my beloved Mission burritos. I'd eat at each of the 500 or so sushi places on Geary, finish my tequila Ph.D. at Tommy's, and hang with Russians, Irishmen, and the Asian/Caucasian crowds at bars like Fizzie's and Would You Believe? The neighborhood's a fabulous little melting pot, where everyone seems to mingle with everyone else. Thus, I was only mildly surprised when I strolled into RoHan Lounge -- a hip "small plates" bar that specializes in the Korean liquor soju -- and found the place bursting with, of all things, white people.

The crowd was two deep at the bar by the time my friends Dan, Elsbeth, and I walked out the door at 10 p.m. on a Friday. We saw boho types in stylish spectacles, chic young Asians, a few hotties, the occasional scruffy fellow, and, as we left, men bearing DJ equipment (Friday is house music night). A bar runs along one side of the narrow space, a row of booths along the other. Dim red light, backlit soju bottles, and an anime collage add an edgy, modern feel. Some may remember the space's former occupant, the Happy Family Restaurant, which co-owner Anlie Han's parents operated for years. Now 3809 Geary is where you go to explore the wonders of soju and feast on simple (at times excellent) Pan-Asian dishes with a strong Korean influence.

RoHan isn't the only soju bar in town; Japantown's Rookie also serves it. The soju at RoHan, a distillate of rice, barley, and sweet potatoes, runs about 50 proof. To be blunt, you have to down a lot of it to get looped. We split nine drinks among the three of us, and even Elsbeth claimed to be more sober when we left than when we arrived (not that she was in any shape to operate heavy machinery). Straight soju, available by the bottle or the glass, tastes a bit like sake, with a sharp bite reminiscent of gin. Soju also stars in a long list of cocktails, from the Happy Family (a sultry Piña Colada) to a tart, sugar-rimmed Tao Drop (similar to a Lemon Drop) and a clean, steely Haiku (martini-esque, with a hint of cucumber). The Numbchuck -- soju, ginger syrup, cranberry, and a splash of cola -- tastes entirely of the last ingredient, and should be avoided. The Confucius (a soju Cosmopolitan) isn't bad, while the cloying Superfly (soju, triple sec, simple syrup, and blue curaçao) is so sugary that you could use it to make cotton candy. The surprise hit of the night was the Asian Blonde, soju with orange and carrot juices; the carrot added an exquisite, refreshing sweetness. Bek so ju is a light, flowery ginseng wine well worth trying. RoHan also offers three premium sojus, five draft beers, and 19 good, old-fashioned grape wines by the bottle ($16-47).

The thing about drinking soju, though, is that it tends to make you hungry. Fear not: Chef Jen Solomon (formerly of AsiaSF) knocks out a wonderful array of small plates, priced low enough that $10 to $15 will fill you up, leaving plenty of cash to spend on soju. Start with the house-made kim chee -- cool, luscious slabs of mildly fiery pickled cabbage -- which goes brilliantly with a soju cocktail, in case you're wondering. Steamed dumplings with ground pork and napa cabbage come with a spicy, soy-based dipping sauce; it's nothing fancy, yet perfectly delectable, and also a fine accompaniment to soju. Ahi tartare and poki (Hawaiian-style ahi tartare) pop up everywhere these days, but RoHan's tartare is one of the best I've tried. Silky minced albacore tossed with bell peppers, tomato, and a hint of red chili sauce is served with rice puff crackers tinged green with an insinuation of wasabi.

The only dinner plate we didn't like consisted of tough nuggets of Japanese eggplant sautéed with a flavorless garlic-tamarind sauce. Crispy spring rolls stuffed with cabbage, glass noodles, and robust beef could have used more oomph but took nicely to a sweet-and-sour red vinegar- hoisin dipping sauce. A similar dip accompanied the sumptuous, scallion-flecked Korean pancakes, another simple, addictive, soju-worthy nosh.

For a more substantial plate, try the steamed sea bass with ginger, scallions, jalapeños, and buttered soy. At its best, steamed sea bass takes on a luxurious richness, as if butter once flowed through the creature's veins. Ours was slightly overcooked, but the flavors remained distinct and clear, and the portion was large enough to serve as a light meal. Our final dish, Korean-style short ribs sautéed in a decadent, garlicky soy sauce and arrayed over a bed of flash-fried rice noodles, proved a flavorful, thirst-inducing plate, causing yours truly to order another round of soju.

Unfortunately, the good times came to a screeching halt with dessert. We tried the daily "incarnation" -- in this case, a molten-center chocolate cake that may well have been prepared in an Easy-Bake oven. A doughy mass of pastry surrounded a gooey chocolate center that oozed onto the plate, mingling with a vanilla-cream goo to produce an inedible, sludgy mess. However, two of the other choices -- ice cream mochi and sorbet from Rory's -- seem relatively foolproof. If dessert doesn't sound good, the beauty of RoHan is that you can always have soju instead.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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