Aseoma makes Korean food as American as a melting pot
Aseoma, a subtle, unassuming new storefront restaurant in Squirrel Hill, succeeds in bringing something new to the table (well, to Pittsburgh, at least) — and combining it with some things we already like. It's melting-pot fusion without the gourmet pretension — bold Korean spices, more familiar Thai flavors, surprising Mexican influences, and some street-food classics from all over.
“To me, it's American food,” owner C.K. Kim says. “I love the dishes on the menu. It came from my experience growing up in Pittsburgh and eating American food — and the Korean food I ate with my family — and all the things I've learned and accumulated in my travels.”
Kim worked in Los Angeles for awhile, where he came across Korean tacos, a staple of the city's pioneering gourmet food-truck scene. Los Angeles has lots of Korean and Mexican immigrants, so it was almost bound to happen.
“Korean barbecue complements the Mexican flavors, like the pico de gallo and cheese,” Kim says.
The storefront Kim chose in Squirrel Hill has some drawbacks. It's next to Green Pepper, a more traditional Korean restaurant with better signage. Aseoma's sign reads “Asian Style Eats,” which doesn't say much, and Squirrel Hill is already packed with Asian restaurants of all types.
“In hindsight, I have to be honest, there's been some miscalculation,” Kim says. “I knew what kind of neighborhood Squirrel Hill was. You don't really think of the competition... I just figured that if you opened a restaurant and had good food, people will come.”
After six months of operation, business is finally starting to pick up. Korean food, in general, shows signs of catching on in a big way locally, but there are obstacles. It's not a particularly subtle cuisine.
“Korean food can be a little more intimidating, with the spices, strong flavors, and sometimes, even the smells,” Kim says.
Kim counters this by featuring items that he thinks will be slightly more acceptable to the average diner.
“We've toned down some of the spices,” Kim says. “Kimchi, a pickled cabbage dish, is very strong. It could even be offensive to some. We've caramelized it, which makes it a little sweeter and takes away some of the spiciness, making it somewhat acceptable to the American palate.”
The Fire Meat ($3.95) and Mason Pork ($3.50) tacos have done particularly well so far, particularly among college students. A few other dishes have surpassed his expectations.
“What's surprising is the Black Bean Noodles ($8.75), which is more of a traditional (dish),” Kim says. “It's a very strong flavor. We initially put that on the menu for Korean customers.”
Aseoma's innovations haven't been confined solely to the menu. Kim, who is trained as an engineer, has been experimenting with aquaponics to get fresh, organic produce. Aquaponics is best understood as a cross between aquaculture and hydroponics — where fish are raised in tanks, which, in turn, fertilize a garden of plants.
“I've been tinkering with various things laying around the house,” Kim says. “I made a small system out of cat litter boxes, food containers, some leftover minnows from fishing. A lot of systems use tilapia, and then, harvest the fishes. The goal is to be able to source all our vegetable from this. We're very early in the process.”
The flexibility of Aseoma's concept allows for lots of new things across a broad range of cuisines. Fish tacos, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and Thai larb (meat salad) tacos, could be on the menu in the near future.
Aseoma, 2018 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. Details: 412-421-1920.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.