Why is there no sign for Soju Haus

(For a better reading experience, we translated this article written by a Korean liquor expert after visiting Soju Haus. This article was published on May 29, 2019 in Oh My News, Korea’s largest online newspaper. The original article is edited to fit the blog.)

On a cool weekend evening, I managed to have the opportunity to visit New York City. There, I walked slowly down 32nd Street, a Korea town in New York.  This street started in the 1970s when of the first Korean ox bone broth restaurant opened. The streets, which were sought after by Koreans who did business in the clothing industry, are now crowded with New Yorkers and tourists.  It’s hard to get past on weekends. It was a scene where New York was slowly paying more attention to Korean culture.

 

There is a bar and restaurant named Soju Haus at the intersection of 32nd Street and 5 Avenues. However, you need to know the exact address to get there, because there are no signs. To get to this elusive place, you would take the elevator from the entrance to the 2nd floor and you will find the bar right away. You’d think it would be a dark, small space because there were no signs, but it was a big 140-seat bar. Outside the window, the Empire State Building soars high above the sky.

I asked Soju Haus owner, Jun-ho Moon,

“Why don’t you hang a sign out?”

 

He replied, “Restaurants can only start through word of mouth that the food there tastes good. If the sign is gorgeous, there are people who would just see the sign. It may sound dry, but we may have guests who we don’t want.”

 

It didn’t sound dry. He showed confidence that only those who had succeeded in running restaurants and pubs could feel it.

 

Mr. Moon, who added the word soju to the name of the shop, also had an original strategy to introduce soju. It can be easily found in Soju Haus publicity. The promotional material has a toad. Toads are a symbol of Jinro Chamisul, a trademark for this famous brand of Korean soju. Soju Haus also introduces soju in a more detailed and interesting fashion than any other bar in New York. When I saw the menu board it surprised me. There are no whiskies, wine or sake in the menu. Instead, there are various types of soju, which are classified as premium and general soju.

Through soju, Mr. Moon wants to announce to New York that the Korean culture is “breaking the drinking culture” here in New York. He wishes that not only Korean food, but Korean soju should be more exposed to New Yorkers. Afterall, we are in this huge city where different cultures intermingle where differences and similarities in cultures are celebrated. This strive to “break the drinking culture” is in fact, a difficult concept to translate and convey to the American people.

 

Soju is no mere drink, rather it’s a fun way for people to socialize. The fun in soju is to drink shots with each other and finish the bottle. You would pour the soju for each other, yell “One shot!” and knock back the shot and smack the shot on the table (not too hard to break the cup!) to make a nice smack sound. The other party then fills the empty glass again. That’s how Koreans drink soju and it’s beyond simply drinking shots, it’s a social culture deeply ingrained into Korean culture.

 

Here’s Mr. Moon’s logic concerning integrating Korean drinking culture to the New York scene. New York has their own bar culture. New Yorkers sit side-by-side at a bar, have a cocktail and talk for a very long time. It’s different from Korean culture, where you can’t stop drinking. Whiskey or vodka, on the other hand, gets you drunk too quickly. Drink too fast and you’re falling off the barstool. But soju is gentler and inexpensive, and the cup is small. If it’s soju, New Yorkers can continue to drink like Koreans. New York’s bars are too narrow and long, so it’s not easy to have a lot of snacks accompanying your drinks.  Soju Haus has a wide, round table made of tin to place a generous number of Korean snacks. In other words, it is an attempt to incorporate Korean liquor culture into New York’s bar culture.  

New Yorkers typically visit Soju Haus in the early evening. They have the patience to line up for an hour and get in. However, Korean students and most Koreans don’t wait an hour to drink soju. Instead, they arrive around 10 pm when the guests are reduced. A typical day for Soju Haus is a crowded day.

 

I sat down at the Soju Haus, which overlooks 32nd Street Koreatown and plays K-pop music in the background, eating steamed back ribs and drinking a cucumber soju cocktail. The refreshing cucumber soju cocktail contained dried red peppers, while the steamed ribs contain kimchi, a bit of a spice to tantalize the tongue. When I asked a New Yorker at a table next to me what the taste of soju was like, he said, “Soju, Soju, so good!” Soju follows the rhythm of Korean culture and communicates with New Yorkers in Manhattan in harmony.

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