Pasadena is a lovely place to call home, but I must admit that the dining options aren’t very inspiring. With the exception of Pie ‘n Burger and Euro Pane, restaurants within walking distance are mostly soulless chains—Chipotle, Panda Express, Corner Bakery, and the like. Even though I live and work in this city, I usually spend my dining dollars elsewhere to avoid mediocrity.
Cham Korean Bistro is a breath of fresh air and a welcome addition to the South Lake Avenue business district. The woman behind this stylish new eatery is Kimmy Song, CEO of !iT Jeans. After experiencing enormous success with her denim fashion line, Ms. Song sought a new challenge that would give back to the community. A portion of Cham’s profits will be donated to developing countries.
With Chef E.J. Jeong, formerly of BOA and A.O.C., heading up the kitchen, Cham cooks up fresh and healthful Korean food that is “globally inspired, yet true to its heritage.” At the tail end of last month, The Astronomer, Rosalind (The Astronomer’s lil’ sister), and I attended a low-key preview to sample Cham’s menu, offer our thoughts, and chat with Ms. Song.
We started off the tasting with a selection of tofu pockets ($1.50 each)—arugula with red radish, pickled seaweed, marinated fresh crab meat, and spicy tuna with pea shoots. Each of the pockets were stuffed with warm, slightly vinegary brown rice in addition to the specified filling. I am accustomed to eating sweet fried tofu skin a la inari sushi, so I was impressed by how tastily these unorthodox innards melded with it. The crab and spicy tuna were my two personal favorites, although the seaweed and arugula weren’t too far behind.
Whereas traditional bibimbap usually entails a hearty bowlful of rice, Cham’s version is more like a salad with a smattering of brown rice. The spicy tuna bibimbap ($10) in red pepper aioli was a little too true to its name; all three of us were reaching for our water glasses with each bite. Spiciness aside, the colorful selection of julienned vegetables were wonderfully fresh and beautifully presented.
Next, we tried the beef bulgogi Ssam Garden Platter ($11). According to the menu, ‘ssam’ means to “wrap and eat heartily” in Korean. The sizzling plate of thinly sliced beef arrived in a cast iron grill with a neat platter of butter lettuce, sesame leaves, cilantro, and cool bibim noodles on the side. We were instructed to make little parcels containing a bit of everything using the sturdy butter lettuce cups.
Korean barbecue, especially of the all-you-can-eat variety, has a sort of brash charm to it. Cham has managed to refine the art of tableside grilling without losing any bit of flavor.
My favorite dish of the afternoon were the crispy rice cakes with mushrooms, broccoli, and minced beef sauteed in a sweet soy sauce. The individually-made rice cakes had the most wonderful texture and pleasant chew—I’m a sucker for refined starches.
I left the tasting at Cham feeling giddy and excited. During our walk home, I thought to myself, “I’ve finally found an awesome dinner option that’s a stone’s throw away. Score!”
Cham Korean Bistro
851 Cordova Street
Pasadena, CA 91101