Grand Tasting at Cham Korean Bistro

2009-07-30 - Cham Korean Bistro Pasadena 050Today Pasadena is getting a great new restaurant serving up fresh, affordable Korean food.  I was able to get a sneak peek last week during their Grand Tasting event, a soft opening that allowed participants to sample items from their innovative menu.

To provide a witness and make full use of the carpool lanes, I was accompanied by Annalise, a fellow South Bay Foodie.   Despite have to run some errands on the way and hitting traffic, we arrived at Cham exactly 30 minutes early for the 7:30 PM tasting.  Because we had no idea what to expect of the restaurant, we thought we would chill at the bar for a while until the event started.  We were looking for a full service spot…something akin to a chain restaurant with a waiting area, a bar, and a dining room.  We were wrong.

As soon as we arrived we were welcomed in and introduced to the manager, Ricardo.  Getting there early proved beneficial since it gave us time to chat with Ricardo before things got busy.  He explained that the goal at Cham was to provide a modern spin on authentic Korean food in a relaxed bistro setting.  I have to throw in a spoiler alert here: They pull it off marvelously.

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Ricardo went over the menu and explained how to order; first selecting an entrée, then a meat to accompany it.  With three types of entrees to choose from and several meats, we were stumped; everything looked and sounded so good!  We couldn’t decide between the salads (Cham, watermelon, and apple kim-chi) or even settle on a meat (pork, chicken, short ribs, or bulgogi).  Eventually, Ricardo asked us what we liked the most and selected entrees for us.  We couldn’t complain!

Spicy Tuna Bibimbap

Spicy Tuna Bibimbap

We started with spicy tuna bibimbap, a dish that features a meat, rice, and a lightly seasoned bed of fresh vegetables.  We were told that the best way to eat bibimbap is to mix everything together so that all the flavors come together.  That’s where Kimmy came in.  Kimmy, the unsuspecting owner of the place,  gently insisted on mixing our salad.  Her expert hands made short work of blending the ingredients and further seasoning the salad with oils and pepper sauce at the table.  The resulting flavor was tremendous.  More on Kimmy later.

Kimmy demonstrates the correct way to mix bibimbap

Kimmy demonstrates the correct way to mix bibimbap

The delicious bibimbap was quickly followed with the ssam garden platter paired with bulgogi.  Each dish seemed to come with a lesson; with this one we learned that the garden platter was essentially a Korean style lettuce wrap.  Ricardo explained the steps of filling the lettuce leaf with noodles, the tender beef, and the pickled ginger and then wrapping the whole thing in a sesame leaf.  It was brilliant; the flavors complemented each other perfectly with the sesame leaf taking the lead.  And all this time I thought sesame plants were only good for their seeds!  The leaf really made the wrap stand out.

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Annalise eyes the ssam garden platter and bulgogi

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Rice cake

We continued our Korean culinary education with the next dish: rice cake and bulgogi.  Of course, I was totally expecting to be served a circular cake of crisp, fluffy rice topped with beef; this dish was nothing like that.  The beef was there but the rice cakes were far from crispy.  Instead, they were tubular pieces of spongy, noodle like material.  They tasted great but took some getting used to.  Having a consistency of a very dense pasta, I decided to pass on the rice cakes to leave room for the beef and the other dishes yet to come.

And, boy, was I glad I saved room.  The next dish was by far the favorite of the entire meal: spicy tuna and crab tofu pockets (pictured above).  The fresh crab was sweet and blended nicely with the sweet tofu wrapped around it.  The pepper sauce added just enough spice to the overall sweetness of the dish.  It was almost like a meat based dessert.  But the spicy tuna stole the show.  With a subtle but confident spiciness, the tuna took the lead in flavor but played nicely with the sweetness of the tofu and the nuttiness of the brown rice.  As I chewed each bite, the flavors took me on a journey as they changed from spicy, to sweet, to ricey, and back to spicy.  The spicy tuna tofu wrap was a winner.

Tofu wraps with fresh crab (top) and spicy tuna

Tofu wraps with fresh crab (top) and spicy tuna

As the meal came to an end, there were still many things on the menu we were curious to try.   We asked to sample the apple kim-chi salad and were blown away yet again.  The “kim-chi” was nothing like we expected.  The garlicky, pickled flavor that we expected was nowhere to be found.  Instead, our palates were met with the sweetness of the crisp apple and a surprising greenness from the topping which turned out to be julienned snow peas.  The ingredient in this dish that knocked our socks off though, was the delicate dressing of soy sauce and sesame oil.  In fact, Annalise, who dosen’t even care for lettuce much, was dredging the leaves through the dressing eagerly helping me finish the dish.  We later found that the soy sauce blend is a secret recipe of the restaurant’s head chef, E.J.  My opinion: they should bottle the dressing and sell it!

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Apple Kim-chi salad

Oh, a bit more about Kimmy, the restaurant owner, who we chatted with as we finished our meal.  It wasn’t until Annalise asked who the owner was that that Kimmy let us know she was the one.  For the entire evening, she had literally rolled up her sleeves and was clearing tables, mixing bibimbap, and generally making everyone feel at home.  She explained that this was her second professional venture, having already found some success in the fashion industry.  She went on to tell us that the proceeds from Cham would go to help feed hungry people around the world.  We were stunned.  I was pleased to hear of a restaurant existing to fund other causes, particularly to provide food for needy people.  I had to give Kimmy and the Cham staff kudos for that.

As we left, we thanked Ricardo, E.J., and Kimmy for our meal and promised to share our experience with our South Bay friends.  If you are looking for fresh, well made, and reasonably priced Asian food, I highly recommend Cham Korean Bistro. Pasadena (and the world)  is lucky to be getting such a fine establishment.

E.J., Cham's head chef

E.J., Cham's head chef

Cham Korean Bistro

851 Cordova Street
Pasadena, CA 91101

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About the Author

Michael loves grilling, rum, and has a weakness for key lime pie.

6 Responses to “Grand Tasting at Cham Korean Bistro”

  1. Ooooh, the spicy tuna bibimbap is a nice twist! The tofu pockets are off the chains though. Never had a bad one.

  2. YES! everything with the spicy tuna in it was delicious…especially the tofu pockets.

  3. I’m a lucky gal to have Cham so close to home! Walking distance is unheard of in this car-centric state 😉 I’ve added your blog to my reader so that I can learn more about South Bay eats and haps. Best, CD

  4. Yes, you are a lucky gal. I’ve got some good places around my pad that I can walk to or carry out…but nothing like Cham! Thanks for your interest in the South Bay. We’ve got some really good eats down here too!

  5. Hi!
    I’m a chef of CHAM korean bistro.
    First of all, Thank you so much for enjoying our foods and writing a nice review for CHAM. I wanted clear about my expereices. I’ve worked for A.O.C and BOA. But I wasn’t CHEF of A.O.C. There are big difference between chef and trained/ line cook at restaurant.

    Chef is only one person Suzanne Goin, one person at A.O.C. hOWEVER i’m so proud of getting experiece at those restaurant as a line cook,it truly my basic stone.So could you please fix the line i was chef at A.O.C to trained at A.O.C AND BOA?
    I hope to see you soon at CHAM.