The Three-Umbrella Problem: Bop Reviewed
I ate the mandoo at Bop and they were fine. Tasted like a thousand other dumplings at a hundred other American-Asian restaurants in a dozen other cities and were, in exactly that way, as perfectly satisfying and completely non-threatening as McNuggets. The leeks (chopped in with the beef, pork and vermicelli noodle filling) were a nice touch, I thought. But I wasn’t in love.
I had the fried rock shrimp, too — little knuckle-sized lumps with the consistency of fried shrimp, if not the flavor, and a nicely crisped tempura crust that stood up admirably to the generous slicking of sweet-hot, creamy, almost mayonnaise-y chile sauce. They, too, were fine. I’m a sucker for fried shrimp on an appetizer menu anyway. (Some lingering poor kid’s equation of shrimp=special and fried=awesome that will never go away because shrimp is the lobster of the lower-middle class and the white in my collar still looks blue in the right light.) I’ll order them anywhere, in any regional or ethnic variation, and these were, if not unique (at all), then certainly as good as anyone else’s fried sea protein in spicy Asian goop.
I ordered the bulgogi and I ate it and I was surprised when I saw that half the Korean marinated beef and half the rice and half the seasonal vegetables were gone without my hardly even noticing. Then I paid my bill. Then I left. And outside, I saw a man carrying three umbrellas.
Look, here’s the short version for those of you who don’t care about umbrellas or nuance: You should go to Bop if you’re looking for something easy and something that’s different in the way that things can be different even if they’re the same as a thousand other things simply because they’re not a cheesesteak or burgers or spaghetti.
See the box over there? Two stars, come if you you’re in the neighborhood. That’s what it says. And I mean that here so very literally. This place, with its clean lines and white tile, is frictionless and fun. Everything goes down as though coated with a sheen of Teflon — no jagged flavors, no rough edges. The cocktails are sweet. There’s sriracha to pour over everything. With its Korean name-checks (bibimbop, mandoo, kimchi, and Korean fried chicken wings) and worldly disregard for the borders of national cuisine, Bop ably fills that space in Restaurant World between chain food and reality. It feels already like an experiment in operational scaling, like it might be the founding location of an interstate empire. And right now, it’s the place to go when you’re looking for something less ethnic than Chipotle but classier than the local Applebee’s.
But anyway, about those umbrellas …
I walked out of Bop (which, by the way, is partly owned by Eagles tight end Brent Celek, if you care about such things, which I don’t) after my first lunch and there he was. Just a guy like me, sweating under the oppressive heat and burning, cloudless, sun-drenched sky. He was wearing a backpack (like me) and as I fell into step behind him on the sidewalk, I saw that he was carrying three umbrellas.
And it didn’t hit me right away. It took a few steps. But then I looked back, counted again, and yeah: three umbrellas, all of the compact, collapsible variety but all different, stuck into various pockets and bits of webbing.
Three umbrellas. And I mean, that’s weird, right? Think about it. One umbrella on a sunny day? OK. He’s just a guy who always carries an umbrella. Likes to be prepared. Probably also carries breath mints, spare shoelaces, and a backup tie in there, just in case.
Two umbrellas? No problem. Two umbrellas you can explain. Like maybe he always carries one umbrella, but the last time it rained he’d left a wet umbrella at his office to dry and was now bringing it home to add to his Strategic Umbrella Reserve. Or maybe his first umbrella just looked lonely and he thought it needed a friend.
But three umbrellas on an August afternoon on Broad Street? I have no narrative for that. No reasonable story to explain it that doesn’t involve OCD or the simple doubling of circumstances that left him with two umbrellas. Three umbrellas, to me, is evidence of either extraordinary carelessness or extraordinary fear of rain.
And Bop? It’s got a three-umbrella problem, too.
My second time through the dining room at Bop I sat at the bar and it didn’t feel so much like sitting at the bar in a restaurant as it did participating in some sort of simulation designed to give me the experience of sitting at a bar in a restaurant without all the risks and complications of actually, you know, doing that. It had something to do with the whiteness of everything, and something to do with the bar only being intermittently staffed by servers also doing other things, and something to do with the sense that the bar had been put there solely because that was where the bar was supposed to go in the concept art for the space.
I wasn’t the only one there. It was spottily filled out in twos and threes, with people drinking glasses of wine and big-label beers or fruit-infused vodka while they waited for their Korean double-fried chicken wings or edamame ravioli. Which, again, are both good (in a generically pan-Asian American multicultural modernism kind of way), but not, you know, good good. The ravioli are big and floppy, sitting in a puddle of salty kombu broth and dressed with an anachronistic shot of truffle oil. They strike a distant chime, reminding me (vaguely) of the edamame dumplings at Sampan or Double Knot, but aren’t as good. And the Korean chicken wings (angry red and fiery one time, more muted and only dimly hot the next, but both times served with a soy-garlic glaze that tastes of neither soy nor garlic and a deferential side of kimchi) only remind me of the ones I had forever ago at SouthGate and how good those were in comparison.
The pork bibimbop is as nonthreatening as a sack full of kittens — all muted flavors, sizzling rice, zucchini and matchstick carrots with a fried egg thrown on top. It is, as a designed product, remarkably clean (as is everything at Bop), with a place for everything and no carrots invading the bean sprout zone or grilled pork migrating out of its designated area. But it doesn’t taste like much. There’s no punch to it. No edge. It’s a dish that can be eaten and forgotten almost instantly which, I suppose, might be considered miraculous and perfect for this modern, grab-and-go, fast-casual age, but not by me.
The burger is simply a burger (beef and cheese, tomatoes and lettuce, bacon, gochujang-spiced mayo that acts only as lubricant, kimchi that isn’t), the salmon poke (which I ordered because the nearly indistinguishable tuna poke was sold out) delicious, actually, but somehow even less Korean to me than the Korean Chicken Nachos elsewhere on the menu, or the Loaded Kimchi Fries. I saw people requesting chopsticks here and I had to laugh: Asking for chopsticks at Bop is like bringing your passport to shop at Pier 1.
The three-umbrella problem is essentially one of two non-overlapping phenomena. Either Bop, its management and its kitchen are careless — making dull food because they don’t know any better or aren’t engaged enough to try harder — or they are terrified of the rain and have engineered in layers of buffering and protection and safety so that no one who eats there will ever be confronted by strong flavors; producing food that is exactly as good as it has to be, and whose only significant and dependable quality is that it offends no one.
I don’t buy option one for a couple of reasons. First, the hallmark of carelessness is an inability to make the same dish the same way twice. At Bop, everything (except maybe the wings, which seem to be different for every person who tries them) is a carbon copy of the thing that came before. The fried rock shrimp always come with a sprinkling of chives garnishing the top. The mandoo always arrive arranged the same way on the plate. The bibimbop, as discussed, comes with the kind of strict ingredientiary border controls that would make Donald Trump jealous. Chef-partner Hee Chang (who also teamed up with Celek at Prime Stache) obviously has his kitchen crew well in hand, and has designed a menu made for repetition — every bibimbop bowl is constructed of the same base ingredients; sriracha, gochujang, and “sweet chili dipping sauce” recur over and over again on the menu. That’s not carelessness. That’s a prep list, recipe, and plate design all executed with savage efficiency.
Option two, then, seems more likely. That these dishes, executed by Bop’s crew and conceived by Chang (who, as a second-generation Korean American chef, has said that he’s doing riffs on family recipes, that he knows how this stuff is supposed to taste), are deliberately chosen and designed to provide maximum coverage (all of Asia, plus truffles and nachos and fish tacos with chipotle aioli, fused into a single modern Korean-American concept) and minimum risk of anyone accidentally tasting something that might freak them out. My proof of this? The kimchi.
I remember when kimchi used to be dangerous. When putting it on a plate was a wicked risk and ordering it was a sign that your tastes were truly out there. And I’m talking about long-fermented kimchi. The kind of stuff you’d make in a jar and then bury in your backyard for a month. That you couldn’t open in an enclosed space. Whose sour spice and heat was a signifier of Korean flavor and whose stink would hang on your skin and on your breath for hours after eating.
Bop’s kimchi is none of these things. In the bibimbop, there is a limp green mass that seems almost like collard greens, but comes with a kind of kimchi spice that carries only a vague heat and smells of nothing and has the texture of chewing wet paper. On the burger, it is rounds of limp kimchi cucumber speckled red but tasting more like the spicy pickles you get from truckstops down South. It is food as attestation, signifying loyalty to a certain palette of Pac-Rim flavors without actually including those flavors in, well, anything. It is emptiness in the drag of culinary adventurism.
Still, I kinda liked the fried shrimp. The burger succeeded as a burger and only failed in being significantly differentiated from any other bacon cheeseburger I’ve ever had. I’ve had better versions of almost everything on the menu at Bop, but I have also had much, much worse. And if that seems like faint praise, that’s because faint is the only kind of praise I have. As a restaurant, Bop is solidly (deliberately) in the middle of the road. It is chinos and a polo shirt, network TV, the average against which all future averages may be calculated.
But as a three-umbrella dining experience, it is exemplary.
2 stars – Come if you’re in the neighborhood.