Green Pepper want you to love food like they do
During his years working in jobs that included internal auditor at a multinational bank and tax examiner for the Internal Revenue Service, Jake Young dreamed of having his own business. He first considered starting an import/export business, then looked into owning a restaurant franchise. But when negotiations with the franchise operation fell through, Young decided it was better to go it alone.
The result is Green Pepper, a Korean restaurant with a slick contemporary look and a menu that's straight from the heart.
"Pittsburghers are becoming more cosmopolitan and global. They travel around the world and across the country," he says. "There are not enough quality Korean restaurants. That makes a huge demand for contemporary, up-to-date quality restaurants."
Finding a professionally trained Korean chef to head up the kitchen proved frustrating. Young wanted someone who would prize quality and freshness over efficiency and cost-control -- someone who cooked the meals his wife, So Young, was serving him at home.
"She is not only a good Korean cook, she's a pretty cook," says Young, who persuaded his wife to take over the restaurant. Married only a year, Young says the meals his wife cooked were so attractive that he had started photographing them each night and e-mailing them to his parents. "Everything she cooks makes me want to take a picture of it. ... She puts her heart into every dish she makes."
After checking out other Korean restaurants around Pittsburgh, Young decided to go with a different look: "Those in business were very old-style from the '60s and '70s -- even one decorated to look like medieval Korea."
Sparely decorated apple-green walls contrast pleasantly with the black wooden tables that seat 40 in the main dining room. Contemporary music plays in the background.
Young took the name of his restaurant from the color of the walls that look to him like green pepper. The vegetable also symbolizes the restaurant's philosophy. "It's one of the freshest ingredients we use," he says. "I procure the freshest, top-quality vegetables. I'm not going for second best. I'm not going to sell you something coming out of my freezer. ... We are cooking from the heart, not for money."
The second room can serve another 40 diners on Friday and Saturday evenings. That room also contains vanilla-colored couches that help create the proper atmosphere for the karaoke lounge that starts up after the restaurant closes at 10 p.m.
The restaurant is at its most mellow early in the evening on Tuesdays through Thursdays. Business picks up on the weekends and between 6:30 and 9 p.m. Most Saturdays between 7 and 8 p.m. a line forms outside the restaurant, with diners waiting for tables.
Waitstaff is accommodating without being intrusive. If they don't know the English for a Korean ingredient, they quickly get a translation from the kitchen.
Green Pepper can be a little difficult to find. There's no big outdoor sign announcing its presence on Murray Avenue. The restaurant opened without one and Young is now reluctant to put one up. He prefers not to attract more people than the kitchen can handle and doesn't want to add staff who don't meet his standards.
Big stone bowls filled with bubbling, hearty food make Green Pepper a good choice on yet-another wintry, rain-soaked evening.
We started our meal with Seafood Pancake ($15.89), an appetizer big enough for sharing. Thick, oily and crispy, the flat, eggy circle was filled with bits of seafood, strands of green onion and crunchy vegetables.
Bibim Bop ($14.02) is the restaurant's most popular dish. It's easy to see why.
Also known as Hot Stone Bowl Mix, this hearty, mid-priced item could keep a hungry grad student going for at least 18 hours. A mixture of freshly sauteed, thinly sliced vegetables provide splashes of color to this generous concoction of rice and ground beef that's topped with a fried egg. Accompanied by small dishes of miso soup, tofu cubes and spicy sauce allow you to raise the heat -- or not -- according to your own comfort level.
An excellent choice for those who prefer something milder is Handmade Beef Dumpling Stew ($13.08), a generous portion of tender balls of ground beef wrapped in tissue thin leaves of pastry floating in beef broth embellished with leaf-shaped chewy rice noodles.
Those who want only a mini-adventure with Korean cuisine might want to try Kalbi ($20.09), the restaurant's signature dish. Westerners should feel comfortable with its thinly sliced beef short ribs that have been marinated in a slightly sweet sauce, then grilled.
Spicy Soon Tofu Stew ($13.08) went far beyond its promise of sizzling seafood and tofu stew. Still bubbling when it arrived in an earthenware bowl, the fiery stew contained not just cubes of tofu but tiny clams in their shells, a shrimp or two, rings of calamari, threads of beaten egg and lots of green onions. It was served with a big bowl of rice that helped offset some of the spiciness.
Dessert comes unbidden as an unexpected and no-cost surprise. Choices rotate with the season.
On a recent evening, we sipped small bowls of Crystal Clear Punch that arrived after waitstaff had cleared away the dishes. The chilled, tan-colored sweet nonalcoholic liquid was flavored with cinnamon, fresh ginger and dried persimmon.
You're welcome to bring your own wine or beer. But Green Pepper discourages doing it with a $7.50 per container charge.
"It's not so much to make a profit but to make sure that everything makes a harmonious dinner," says Young.
The menu offers a selection of American and Korean wines and nearly a dozen choices of Asian and Western beers, all chosen by Young, who favors the Korean selections, which he thinks go best with Korean food.
"We recommend Korean liquors that blend the best with Korean cuisine that you supposedly came here for," the menu states.Additional Information:
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays
Entree price range: $13.08-$20.09
Notes: Private karaoke lounge available by reservation 10 p.m.-1 a.m. Reservations accepted for five or more. Wine list includes Korean wines . BYOB, with $7.50 per bottle charge. Accepts most major credit cards.
Location: 2020 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill