K-pop has become a global phenomenon so ubiquitous that it needs little explanation. A country that years ago had relatively little cultural impact beyond its borders now produces some of the world’s top-selling popular music with extravagant videos and concert tours that reach an international audience. With that kind of influence, it’s easy to understand why plays on words involving the letter “K” as a prefix have become a shorthand for all aspects of Korean influence, including food. K-Bop, a Tempe restaurant, takes that approach to popularizing Korean cuisine.
K-Bop is situated in a small shopping center surrounded by office buildings in northwest Tempe, across the street from the Priest/Washington light rail station. Bike racks are found in front of the Starbucks in the same plaza. The restaurant’s hours, which are currently limited to daytime service on weekdays, reflect a focus on serving the customers that work in nearby buildings, although K-Bop’s proximity to Papago Park, the Phoenix Zoo, the Desert Botanical Garden, and the Hall of Flame make it an option for lunch before of after any of those attractions.
The “bop” following the prefix “K” refers to steamed rice, sometimes also spelled “bap.” That makes sense because with the sole exception of a bowl of ramen, every dish incorporates the grain as its base. Although K-Bop’s signs refer to the restaurant as a “Korean takeaway,” there’s ample space to eat on site in a sparse dining room decorated only with a few posters celebrating Korean food. Customers order at the counter, making selections from a menu on a screen overhead, and then the food is brought to the table, usually within just a few minutes.
For those with good appetites and a desire to explore several facets of the kitchen’s output at once, the best place to start is with a dosirak, the Korean equivalent of a bento box. Each of these meals begins with a generous scoop of rice and a meat. Protein choices include bulgogi, spicy pork, chicken, and a seafood option of salmon. That’s just the start, however. Additional items on the tray may include kimchi, japchae noodles, a mandu dumpling, a few pieces of kimbap rice roll, slices of gyeran-mari rolled omelet, or maybe even Korean potato salad.
While the dosirak meals are best for those who want to keep their various food separated, bimbimbap is the exact opposite: a big bowl of ingredients designed to be stirred and mixed into one composite. A base of rice is topped with a choice of meat or just vegetables, most of them cold or pickled, and a fried egg is placed on top of it all. The customer then can combine the ingredients according to personal preference. The cold vegetables such as cabbage and cucumbers meet the warm rice and egg with everything settling into a comfortable middle.
The third component of the menu is what K-Bop calls “cup bap,” smaller bowls of rice topped with combinations of ingredients. Despite the lesser dimensions of these meals, the restaurant uses them as a way to expand its creativity with some combinations of flavors and textures not seen elsewhere on the menu. Kimchi and spam combine in one cup bap in a mix of spice and salt, and the tofu cilantro cup bap is unexpectedly complex with fresh sprigs of the herb adding an accent to the flavor already imparted by the gochujang sauce covering the bean curd.
The sole dish not based on rice is a bowl of ramen, offered only for dine-in since it might not survive transport during take-out. Like most Korean ramen, it is fashioned with thin instant noodles that have curls reminiscent of an old-fashioned landline phone cord still intact after cooking. The bowl is a meatless dish in its basic form with an egg on top acting as a protein source ready to be stirred into the broth. Nevertheless, the soup can be augmented with the addition of fish cakes, rice cakes, or some mandu, Korean pot stickers stuffed with ground meat.
K Bop serves fountain sodas and iced tea. Some Korean beverage choices include orange or grape juice drinks with bits of actual fruit in the can. For anyone who wants to combine K-Bop with K-pop, canned cold brew coffee is available in cans featuring the faces of members of BTS. In terms of dessert, some packaged sweets are available, including sesame wafers and chocolate marshmallow pies. Like a good K-pop song, K-Bop’s menu is brief and to-the-point, but it also has layers of underlying complexity and nuance waiting to be discovered by its fans.
1158 W. Washington St. #105, Tempe AZ 85281