First Taste

First Taste: New Restaurant Zu & Pocha Brings a 'Korean Touch' to Tempe

The Pollack Pasta is made with squid ink.
The Pollack Pasta is made with squid ink. Tirion Morris
When a new spot opens in town, we're eager to check it out, let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead, a peek inside restaurants that have just opened — an occasion to sample a few items and satisfy curiosities (both yours and ours).

At new Tempe restaurant Zu & Pocha, it's hard to know where to look first. Glowing circular lights shine down on white marble tables. Greenery dangles from between wooden slats lining the ceiling. A long raw bar displays seafood splayed over ice and roll-up garage doors let fresh air into the modern space. Every surface draws your attention.

The walls, bar, and even inserts above each booth are imprinted and carved, with patterns swirling around the room cohesively creating a visually stimulating space. This restaurant is fresh, cool, and textured. And this sharp attention to detail carries over to the menu.
click to enlarge Zu & Pocha is now open in Tempe. - TIRION MORRIS
Zu & Pocha is now open in Tempe.
Tirion Morris

Zu & Pocha is the latest restaurant from Valley hospitality group New Restaurant Concepts. Sister restaurants in the group include Bei Sushi Bar, Bei Express, Zu Izakaya, and Junn Sushi. The latest restaurant is more like an upscale, out-of-town cousin visiting from somewhere like Santa Monica or San Diego. Chill-hop music fills the space, adding to the vibe.

"The concepts for all my restaurants are different," owner and chef June Kang says. "This one is basically a modern seafood restaurant based on Korean cuisine."

Pocha is short for Pojanmacha, the new restaurant's website explains. In Korea, the term refers to a makeshift bar that serves drinks and drinking snacks. The menu draws inspiration from around the world, Kang says, but each dish has a uniquely Korean touch.

While some of his other restaurants are found in Scottsdale, Kang explained that Old Town is full of seafood and fine dining options.

click to enlarge The Seoul Highball is made with soju, berries, seasonal herbs and sparkling mineral water. - TIRION MORRIS
The Seoul Highball is made with soju, berries, seasonal herbs and sparkling mineral water.
Tirion Morris
"Tempe needs some kind of casual, fine dining targeting young professionals," he says.

On a recent visit, groups of friends from neighboring Arizona State University split a seafood platter from the seasonally-rotating raw bar. A young couple enjoys a date and a family ogles at the eclectic menu.

After sitting down in a large, circular booth, drinks are the first order of business. The menu offers beer, wine, soju by the carafe or bottle, and cocktails. The Seoul Highball, made with soju, berries, seasonal herbs, and sparkling mineral water falls a little flat despite the bubbles.

The Dirty Sikhye Martini, made with sikhye which is a sweet Korean rice drink, vodka, coffee liqueur, and drunken cinnamon jujube fruits is reminiscent of an espresso martini, however a salty cold foam on top distracts and overpowers the other flavors. A carafe of soju infused with juice may be the better move.

click to enlarge Mini lobster rolls at Zu & Pocha in Tempe. - TIRION MORRIS
Mini lobster rolls at Zu & Pocha in Tempe.
Tirion Morris
As for food, the first plate to arrive at our table was the mini lobster rolls. Contrary to the cocktails, these are a must-order option. The dish is comprised of two tiny, jet-black rolls set on a gleaming white plate. The warm brioche buns are made with charcoal, hence their striking color, and studded with wasabi sesame seeds.

The buns gently cradle a cold lobster and celery salad mixed with yuja aioli and topped with crispy ginger. Yuja, sometimes known as yuzu, is a citrus flavor prevalent throughout the menu. The cold, bright and fresh lobster paired with the warm, dark buns provide contrasting texture and temperature in each bite.

click to enlarge Seafood mandu are served with a soju and ginger broth and salmon roe. - TIRION MORRIS
Seafood mandu are served with a soju and ginger broth and salmon roe.
Tirion Morris
Second to arrive is the seafood mandu. A glass dome covers the plate, filled with swirls of smoke that float into the restaurant as a server theatrically reveals a carefully placed row of dumplings. The little pouches are surrounded by a rich soju and ginger broth and topped with bright orange pearls of salmon roe and slivered scallions. Each bite provides a burst of salty ocean flavor, kicked up a notch by each exploding pearl.

After enjoying our appetizers, we moved on to the main meal, picking one hearty dish and a lighter option to share. The Pollack Pasta, which our server enthusiastically recommended, arrives, presenting another stark contrast.

Housemade squid ink noodles provided a dark background to a light, creamy sauce. Chunks of pollack roe clump together in the sauce, gradually disintegrating as we pull noodles from the pile. Rich and creamy, this dish tastes like an alfredo sauce spiked with seafood.

click to enlarge Lollipop rolls at Zu & Pocha. - TIRION MORRIS
Lollipop rolls at Zu & Pocha.
Tirion Morris
Next up are lollipop rolls. These skewered snacks would make an excellent appetizer to share. While these colorful bites involve no rice, which the other rolls on the menu do have, this dish includes bluefin tuna, salmon, hamachi, lump crab, and avocado all wrapped up neatly in a cucumber shell. Dipping sauce adds a little saltiness, but this dish is otherwise simple, cold, and fresh.

After a dish that doubled as a health food, we dug into something a little more decadent. The dessert menu includes four options and a dish simply titled Yuja caught our attention.

click to enlarge The dessert titled Yuja at Zu & Pocha. - TIRION MORRIS
The dessert titled Yuja at Zu & Pocha.
Tirion Morris
Another black plate arrived at the table, this time splattered with roughly the ingredients of a deconstructed lemon meringue pie. The base layer was made of sweet, toasted marshmallow fluff studded with dollops of bright yellow yuja curd.

Sprinkled on top was a smattering of mesquite graham cracker crumbs, honey, blueberries, and strawberries. The tart curd cut the sweetness of the fluff, creating a balanced bite. But it doesn't take long for the sugar rush to kick in.

Zu & Pocha opened in the summer, a hard time for businesses so close to Arizona State University. But come the school year, this spot is sure to be full of students. So for the rest of us, visit soon before the tables fill up.

Zu & Pocha

1212 East Apache Blvd., Tempe
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