By Frank Sabatini Jr.
When South Korean college student Inho Choi took a San Diego vacation several years ago, he ended up buying Natural Style Chicken in Point Loma. The eatery, lauded for its rotisserie birds and secret teriyaki sauce recipe, was established in 1979 and had already changed hands a few times.
“I came here originally to just have fun,” said Choi, who studied international trade in his homeland.
Now a resident of Mission Valley, the 33-year-old entrepreneur has added a new Hillcrest location to the business.
Situated on a prime, high-traffic corner of University and Fifth avenues, this latest offshoot is the jazzier sibling of the two.
Point Loma is smaller and plainer in design, although it uses a wood-fired oven. Hillcrest, however, greets with a warm-industrial look and whimsical streamers of clouds, unicorns and rainbows dangling over what used to be a sushi bar under previous tenants.
There are also a dozen or so appetizers unique to Hillcrest.
Sweet chili mushrooms and shrimp toast, for instance, each sent us over the moon.
The former gives ho-hum button cap mushrooms a dynamic boost with its deeply flavored red sauce that tasted both sweet and spicy. The sautéed ‘shrooms are served in a crock and buried beneath a nest of Korean vermicelli noodles, which added a nice, crunchy texture to the dish.
At a glance, the shrimp toast appeared like quartered grilled cheese sandwiches. Yet between the well-greased toast points are dense layers of finely chopped shrimp. The seasonings are scant as to not interfere with the buttery essence of these titillating finger sandwiches.
Beef ribs are a big deal at both locations. But we came clucking for chicken and savored every bite in three different preparations.
The spicy Korean chicken wings were crispy and studded in white sesame seeds. The sauce coating them was similar to that covering the mushrooms — perhaps a notch hotter.
Whole, half or quartered chickens from the rotisserie are served over a melange of carrots, potatoes and onions. We ordered a half bird. The veggies cook at the bottom of the rotisserie, thus catching all of the precious drippings. Suddenly, the eatery’s Korean overtones flew right out the window when forking into the meal. This was like Sunday dinner somewhere in the American heartland. The juicy meat, crispy skin, and the fork-tender vegetables exemplified the definition of “comfort food.”
Choi says he sells about a dozen whole rotisserie birds a day, although the teriyaki chicken plate, featuring pulled chicken meat with a choice of two sides, is the bigger moneymaker.
“I sell about 40 pounds of it a day in Hillcrest, and 300 pounds of it a week in Point Loma,” he said.
Draped judiciously in dark, viscous teriyaki sauce boasting a balanced sweet-tangy flavor, we were surprised at the large amount of meat (white and dark) on the plate, given the meal is priced at only $9. If you want all-white meat, it’s $2 extra. Either way, there wasn’t a dry, tough piece in our pile.
For sides, we chose house-made potato salad sporting micro bits of dill pickle, and a medley of broccoli, carrots and mushrooms quickly stir-fried with a little garlic. Those were on the firm side.
Other side options include re-fried beans, brown rice, coleslaw and macaroni salad.
Of the more modern, experimental dishes — all reasonably priced — you’ll find kimchi french fries, spicy Korean chicken nachos, bulgogi beef tacos, and chicken “pops” available in a choice of sauces, including Buffalo-style.
Beer, wine and soju are also in the offing. The latter, which is sold in nearly a dozen flavors, pairs to many of the dishes much like a good cabernet sings to filet mignon. We ordered a bottle of plain, well-chilled soju, which Choi touts as superior to sake.
“Sake is too sweet. And there’s less headache from soju,” he pointed out.
He was right. At a whopping 17% alcohol, the clear liquid, distilled from grains, was smooth and refined tasting.
In addition to happy hour (3 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday), when beer and wine are discounted by 50%, Choi also offers “soju Sundays” all day. If you buy one bottle, you get the second one for half price. Just prepare to wash down some chicken with it because as we learned, soju has a sneaky kick.
— Frank Sabatini Jr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.