Unless you happen to live or work nearby, it’s unlikely that your first visit to Cafe Agit will happen by accident. Most likely, you’ll be drawn to this nondescript Korean bar and grill in Mesa, which resembles any other number of aging strip mall bars from the outside, on the recommendation of a friend, lured there by tales of late-night Korean barbecue and ice-cold carafes of soju — popularly regarded as the vodka of Korea — its famously caustic properties made dangerously palatable here with cocktail flavorings like mango, pineapple, and yogurt. Or maybe you’ll go for the silkworm pot — Korean street food is still somewhat rare in Phoenix, after all, and perhaps you want to experience the indelicate thrill of gnashing insect protein between your teeth.
Welcome, then, to Cafe Agit, where the tagline beneath its red neon sign reads “Korean Fusion,” and where you can fill your belly with platters of barbecue and Korean fried chicken until 1 a.m. on the weekends. And yes, there is boiled silkworm pupae on the menu, but to regard Cafe Agit as a destination for gastronomical exotica would be to greatly oversimplify its playful, idiosyncratic menu of tasty eats, which is rooted in the classic Korean anju, a category of food designed to be enjoyed with liquor and late-night carousing. Korean fusion, then, as practiced in the kitchen at Cafe Agit, turns out to be a quirky collection of Korean and American snack foods — you’ll find both American and Korean-style chicken wings, for example, along with classic Korean barbecue plates like bulgogi – all of which have been adjusted to the Western palate, and served in a fantastically cavernous bar setting. You come here to eat, yes, but also to drink and soak up the slightly hypnotic, surreal air engendered by copious amounts of meat consumed at indecent hours.
Cafe Agit has been open for about seven months now, situated in the corner of a sleepy strip near Dobson and Baseline roads, where the biggest attraction is a two-story Macayo’s Mexican Restaurant wrapped in so much eye-grabbing neon that, at night, it seems to suck the darkness right out of the airspace. So, you resist the siren call of the Macayo’s, and make your way toward the shadowy entrance of Cafe Agit, whose name translates roughly to something like “shelter” or “hideout.” It’s an apt name, considering all the dark glass of its storefront, and the midnight black décor scheme inside. If you come at night, which is probably the best time to come, the dining room may feel as gloomy as a bomb shelter. But once your eyes adjust to the dark, you’ll spot the usual bar and grill setup, unremarkable booths and tables, and flat-screen TVs playing music videos, which here is mostly K-pop and weepy slow jams. There’s also a small stage for karaoke, where you might catch a Friday-night performance from a young singer named Ghina, whose voice is almost rapturous enough to captivate the rowdy group of young men in suits and ties who seem to gather at the end of the week to flirt loudly and get buzzed on soju bombs.
Beyond the dining room, there’s an outdoor balcony with a few bistro tables overlooking a small residential lake, which might be the most surreal thing about Cafe Agit — you might never guess there was a large body of water out back, if you didn’t see it for yourself. And you might never guess that the restaurant used to be home to a pizza parlor, if not for the small clues left behind, like the pizza-shaped signs on the restroom doors.
So you take a look at the appetizer menu and find the typical salty bar snacks, including French fries and calamari, along with snacks like fried dumplings, which turn out to be essentially gyoza, Japan’s famous pan-fried pork-and-cabbage dumplings. The dumplings are airy, crisp, and delicious, and like most everything else here, the dish pairs well with beer. There’s also a small menu of Japanese ramen: large, hot, steaming bowls of salty broth and noodles that you can order with vegetables and eggs stirred in, or enjoy laden with dduk, sometimes also called tteok, the chewy, glutinous rice-cake lozenges that are a staple of Korean street food.
The ramen is fine, but you may as well succumb to the chicken and barbecue menu right away; the selection encompasses everything from spicy Korean-style popcorn chicken to deep-fried chicken gizzards. The standard order here seems to be the restaurant’s version of padak, the popular Korean fried chicken dish made with bite-size pieces of boneless chicken breast, deep-fried to an impossibly crisp finish and lavished with ribbons of green onion garnish. The sweet-spicy mountain of crispy chicken, glazed in a sweet ginger-and-soy “special sauce,” are reason enough to stay up late and eat. And there is, of course, succulent bulgogi, Korea’s famous beef barbecue, with a sweet, smoky finish that seems to roll off the charred, chopped bits of steak.
At the back of the Cafe Agit menu, you’ll find the house specialties, which include spicy pig feet, fish cakes, and a version of dduk kal-bi, sometimes also called tteokgalbi, which are essentially pan-fried beef patties garnished with sesame seeds. The patties are roughly the same size and shape as American breakfast sausage patties, with the meaty flavor of a good meatball. More intriguing – and very spicy – is jjukkumi, an udon-noodle stir-fry normally made with baby octopus, which is prepared here with calamari. The slippery mollusks, accented with grilled onions and soaked through with sweet red chili sauce, are tender yet chewy, a contrast that only improves your experience of the dish.
You’ll also find a few odd bits and ends that, if you weren’t fortunate enough to have been weaned on Korean street food, may strike you as exotic. There is a delightful sea snail salad, saucy and slightly sweet, with noodle-like strings of dried squid, green onions, and the chewy whelks themselves, akin in texture and flavor to clams. And there is, of course, the boiled silkworm pot, the pupae served in an earthy broth with red peppers and corn. If you’ve ever sent a pot of beans into a rolling boil, you might recognize the same kind of earthy smell wafting out of the silkworm pot. And speaking of beans, the pupae resemble something like slightly oversize pinto beans, striped and a little deflated, with a flavor that may remind you of corn. A big spoonful of the silkworm soup, eaten with gusto, is not unlike enjoying a slightly pungent mushroom and corn soup.
And though a steaming pot of silkworm pupae may not be in your future, Cafe Agit, in a fair and just universe, will become the place you go to at 1 in the morning on a Friday or Saturday — or somewhere north of 10 p.m. on a weeknight — when a slightly grungy bar serving platters of Korean barbecue and deep-fried chicken is exactly the place you want to be.
1954 South Dobson Road #5, Mesa
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Hours: 11 a.m. to 12 a.m. Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Tuesdays.