Whenever I go to Shozen & Manpo, I drink soju, and whenever I drink soju, my wife and kids tell me it does strange things to me. I’m not sure if they’re right, but even if they are, it won’t deter me from indulging, even overindulging, in this clear, clean elixir that some Koreans call “health alcohol.”
Whether you spell it “soju” (the Korean version) or “shochu” (the Japanese variant), it’s a spirit that usually weighs in at 20 to 25 percent alcohol per volume. Some marketers describe it as Korean or Japanese “vodka,” but to my well-practiced palate, such prosaic comparisons hardly do it justice. It goes down smooth and easy — exceptionally so; that’s part of the appeal, and perhaps part of the problem.
There aren’t any alcoholic beverages I won’t try. But for versatility and food-friendliness, ease of quaffing, and all-around drinkability, as well as reasonable price, soju is my go-to likker.
Shozen & Manpo, which sits at the genteel end of Mira Mesa Boulevard on the cusp of Scripps Ranch, serves up two of my favorite subcuisines: sushi and Korean barbecue, the latter cooked on individual tabletop grills with formidable vent hoods looming above. The owner and waitresses, most of whom are Korean immigrants, are exceptionally warm and gracious — and they never fail to remind me to “be careful” when downing soju.
I hadn’t heard of the stuff until about five years ago, but selling me on sampling obscure hootch is no sell at all. My first taste, a handy 375-millileter green bottle, was Chamisul — made by Jinro, the world’s largest distiller of soju. Like many types of soju, Chamisul is distilled from stuff that few American tipplers would associate with booze — things like tapioca and sweet potato. And then, there’s the quadruple-filtration through bamboo charcoal. The result is an eminently quaffable drink — properly downed neat and ice-cold — great with nigiri, copacetic with kimchi, and just fine all by its lonesome.
After my initial foray into the stuff at Shozen & Manpo, I decided to see what I could find in various local Asian grocery stores. This led me to Mitsuwa Marketplace in Kearny Mesa, which sells dozens of brands, mostly Japanese, from about $8 to $25 for a 750-milliliter bottle. Over time, I’ve tried many of them, discovering a wide array of flavors that reflect the various fermentable starches. Some styles, those derived from barley, wheat, potatoes, and rice, offer a “neutral” or vodkalike experience (albeit with much less bite); others, notably sweet potato–based versions, have a distinctive flavor unlike any other spirit I’ve tasted — but I love them all.
At many restaurants, soju — usually a cheap, neutral brand — is offered up in a “Martini,” in much the same way a joint without a full liquor license will create mixed drinks with sake. But no dedicated soju drinker takes his oriental distillates that way; it’s straight or not at all, which brings me back to Shozen & Manpo, whose effervescent proprietor and sugary-sweet (but genuine) waitresses come to mind every time I twist open a bottle.
As soon as I sit down at Shozen, the ritual begins; there’s no need to ask me what I’ll be drinking tonight. Sure, I may intersperse a big bottle or two of Korean OB beer or perhaps a Kirin Ichiban, but within a moment or two, the waitress arrives with an ice-cold bottle of Jinro Chamisul and two tiny, clear glasses. One glass is nominally for my wife, but we all know that the most she’ll drink is one thimbleful; the rest is mine, all mine, and if we’re flush with cash and no one protests too loudly, a second bottle may eventually arrive. Apparently, soju — wildly popular in Korea, where the per capita consumption amounts to a shot a day — has quite a reputation, one characterized by businessmen, still clad in gray wool suits, passed out on the floor amid empty 1.75-liter plastic bottles. Now that’s living, man.