Kimchi, grilled bulgogi and chilled noodles in east Berkshire
The very question of whether Reading is a part of London would’ve been ridiculous just a few short years ago. This quasi-commuter town in east Berkshire, which has always been within easy reach of the capital, is slowly being drawn closer into the Big Smoke’s orbit as the Elizabeth Line (née Crossrail) laboriously inches towards full operation.
While Reading will never fit all of the traditional criteria for being a part of London, in a way that doesn’t matter. As more and more working Londoners are priced out of living within zones 1-6, it’s likely you could find yourself in this part of the world – even it’s just visiting mates who’ve moved there. Which means you’ll need somewhere to eat out, all of which brings us to Soju.
This Korean restaurant is easy to miss with its off-street entrance tucked away in a mini shopping centre/portico-style structure on Kings Walk. I dived into the menu with the help of Inked Metal, the Giggling Boxer and the Book, although my gaggle of neophyte dining companions initially struggled with the DIY meat grilling.
Grilling your meat on the tabletop electric grills isn’t too difficult though. As almost all the meat is thinly sliced, it’s easy enough to tell when they’re done by eyeballing alone. As ever, there’s no need to splurge on expensive cuts – unless you really want to – as cheaper, fattier cuts can be just as flavoursome without the high cost.
Many of the meats at Soju came basted in your choice of marinade. Soya bean paste gave already unctuous pork belly an additional tangy sweetness and umami. Beef short rib, served off-the-bone of course, was effortlessly tender and lightly fatty. Its sweet soy sauce coating had the right balance between sweetness and umami, never veering too far one way or the other. The beef bulgogi tasted surprisingly similar, differing only – as far as I could tell – in its use of leaner but nonetheless still tender cuts of flank.
Despite requesting extra spicy heat, the piquancy of the spicy lamb chops was intermittent at best. Despite this disappointment, the chops were remarkably even in their tenderness despite their thickness. The deep umami and potent earthiness of the marinade more than compensated for the lack of fiery warmth.
The feathery thinness of the ox tongue made this cut easy to overcook, especially if you’re prone to grill-side nattering. When done right, the sauceless ox tongue was eminently rewarding with a firm bite and a tender followthrough. Jacob’s ladder beef rib meat, also served sauceless, had an even more delightful texture – surprisingly offal-like in its snappiness and almost crisp, then fatty and tender. Its sophisticated, layered mouthfeel meant it was easily my favourite.
Soju’s numerous side dishes shouldn’t be ignored. Spiralised radishes were sweet and tinged with sesame. Served chilled, they will prove refreshing on a hot day or as an accompaniment to the more spicy dishes such as Soju’s kimchi. The dull filling of the vegetarian mandoo left much to be desired, but this flaw was easy to overlook given the high quality of the fried dumpling skins – thin yet perfectly and evenly crisp all over.
Kimchi pajeon was, like some of my past lovers, unexpectedly soft throughout with a lifeless filling. Although the fluffiness was pleasurable to a point, I much prefer the versions of this stuffed pancake with crisper crusts available elsewhere.
My dining companions proved to be disappointingly unadventurous with the kimchi, leaving much of it for me to devour alone. The lightly sour, cumulatively tingly spicy warmth blessed all three crunchy vegetables on offer – radishes, cucumbers and slithery cabbage.
My dining companions were also surprisingly wary of the chilled noodle soup, one of my favourite Korean dishes that’s also somewhat uncommon in London. The thin, supple and round-edged noodles had a sesame-like sweetness to them that was utterly addictive. It contrasted neatly with the lightly spiced broth, rounding off a deceptively simple and utterly satisfying starter/side.
Whether Reading is now part of London or not is one of the least interesting questions one could ask when looking at Soju. Even the question of whether there are any interesting restaurants in Reading is a pointlessly obvious thing to ponder (of course there are – just take a squint at Google). The far more pertinent issue at hand is how one reviews a restaurant where the customer seemingly does the bulk of the cooking.
The answer lies in the deceptively simple tasks of sourcing, basting and slicing high-quality meats, not to mention the preparation and cooking of the side dishes. While there were occasional wobbles in the latter, the skill displayed in the former left little to be done by the average diner with her tongs and scissors. So much so, that the sizzling treats at Soju were far more enjoyable and of a higher standard than those at comparable restaurants in London including ones where restaurant staff cook the meat for you. The only sore point was the apparent lack of spicier dishes and those made with gochujang.
Soju is so good, it’d be at the top of my list of places to eat if I ever find myself in Reading again. It’s not quite delectable enough to tempt me into making a trip out to east Berkshire especially to eat there, but it’s a surprisingly close-run thing. If that, as the rootless cosmopolitan elitist that I am, isn’t a sterling recommendation then I don’t know what is.
Address: 9-11 Kings Walk, Reading RG1 2HG
Phone: 0118 334 8162 / 07391 707 799
Opening Hours: seven days a week 11.30-23.30. Last orders 22.45.
Reservations? essential on and around weekends.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks, but excluding tip, when shared between four: £36 approx.