“It’s pizza…only instead of bread dough for the base, this is made with rice,” says Andy Kim, the owner and creator of the WhaLES (71 Clinton Street; 646-882-1305), the pun-tastic Korean fusion bar that recently opened on — where else? — the Lower East Side. “There’s a crunchy crust, then beef that’s been marinated with traditional Korean flavors, then mozzarella melted on top. That’s what I’m talking about when I say fusion. It really is fusion. The flavors I grew up with, and the food I love to eat.”
Tucked into what used to be a fried chicken joint, the WhaLES aspires to go beyond bar service, serving up a playful menu that has more than just Instagram appeal.
“I’ve been making this pizza for ten years at home,” says Kim. “I love to eat it. It’s not just fusion for the sake of fusion. You’re having a beer, enjoying the food…. Basically, I created my dream bar.”
Working with chef Toki Numasawa (formerly of Kirakuya), Kim settled on a menu that features Korean fried chicken, a fresh poke salad, and a few more experimental dishes. “Ramen with cheese!” laughs Kim. “Not at all traditional — but so good!”
The WhaLES winks at social media–savvy eaters and trendsetters, its location deliberately nestled in the heart of what’s quickly becoming a new go-to restaurant row.
“I’ve been working in real estate for fifteen years,” says Kim, “I love this neighborhood, and I knew it had great foot traffic and a great scene. I have a friend who runs a restaurant nearby on St. Marks, so I had a sense of what might appeal [to this area]. I thought, ‘This is the time to give this a shot.’ ”
Several weeks in, and business is steady. A few group bookings — including, unexpectedly, a baby shower — have helped spread word of mouth and get the kitchen running smoothly.
“I was a bit surprised,” explains Kim, “because I haven’t done any marketing. But people are coming in anyway, just to see what’s new in the neighborhood. We’ve had people come in for a drink while waiting for a table somewhere else — and [then they] stay or come back another night. Since some of our dishes have been blogged about, people have been coming in specifically to try them, which is so exciting! They’re walking in with curiosity and walking out with happiness.”
During the WhaLES’s early days, the most “Insta-famous dish” on the menu has been their burger: an Asian spice–marinated patty inside a crunchy rice “bun,” topped with a fried egg, and wrapped in edible soy paper.
“I was talking with chef Numasawa about the ramen burger craze…. We agreed that rice would be a really good taste instead,” Kim says of their inspiration for the rice burger. “Then we had to work out how to make it. No matter what we did, the last bite always crumbled away, so we had to think of a way to keep the burger together. Edible soy paper is the solution that some places in Japan use for sushi. I’ve eaten ice creams where there’s edible paper at the bottom of the cone, and that always seemed fun to me.”
Another unique selling point at the WhaLES is their AGWA Bomb, which brings a rare spirit to the fore.
“In Korea, AGWA is a really popular drink,” Kim explains. “It’s made from coca leaves from Bolivia, and it’s [manufactured] in Amsterdam. It’s a great drink — very popular in clubs all around Asia — and I have no idea why it’s not really available a lot in New York.”
What gives the cocktail — a mixture of AGWA and energy drink — its “bomb” namesake is the capsule of lime powder dropped in right before drinking. Suddenly, the drink transforms into a fizzy, bubbling green potion. Just make sure your iPhone is ready in advance.
“I think it’s a great drink for the Lower East Side,” says Kim. “It’s cool, young, fun. Seriously.”