23 Forest Ave., Portland
Yobo covered two gaps in Portland’s restaurant scene when it opened earlier this year: it occupies the pre-performance dining spot near Portland Stage Company vacated when Bibo’s Madd Apple Café ended its 18-year run last winter, and it filled the void created several years ago when the city’s only Korean eatery, Little Seoul, closed on Exchange Street. Husband-and-wife team Kim Lully and chef Sunny Chung previously owned and operated restaurants in New Hampshire (Sunny’s Table, an Asian bistro in Concord; and The Korean Place, in Manchester), before moving to Lully’s home state to try their luck here.
Yobo’s short menu offers a curated selection of Korean favorites often modified to modernize a traditional dish or incorporate a local ingredient. The restaurant’s tagline is “wine & chow,” and a different vino is listed as the suggested pairing for each entrée and several smaller plates. There’s a pork bossam “picnic” plate portioned and priced with couples in mind ($45), but even if you’re not on a budget (or writing a review), I recommend that you and your dining companion(s) order a spread of smaller dishes to share. That way no one will leave hungry and be compelled to make a pit stop for a slice at Otto on the way home.
You might also save a few bucks by sticking to Yobo’s similarly short and well-considered beer list, which included tall cans of Foundation Brewing Company’s Riverton Flyer pilsner and Rising Tide’s Maine Island Trail Ale when we visited. In lieu of the recommended rosé, a local craft beer would pair beautifully with KFC (Korean Fried Chicken, $12), a generous portion of sticky-sweet boneless breast meat. The galbi (beef short ribs, $18) also go well with beer, though the portion size was considerably smaller.
For starters, the house kimchi ($5) is a must. The banchan ($5), combinations of Korean-style vegetables that change daily, included soy-glazed black beans and tender blanched spinach on one of our visits. (I’ve been to Korean restaurants where the banchan is complimentary, but five bucks seems reasonable for local produce prepared with culinary craft.) Between apps and entrées there’s bindaetteok ($9), a savory mung-bean pancake, and a salad of summer greens ($9) with an interesting citrus-and-miso vinaigrette.
The classic bibimbap ($15) is a solid choice — a combination of beef or tofu with rice (fried to a delicious crisp on the bottom of the hot stone bowl), veggies, a runny egg yolk and gochujang (red-chili paste) that you mix yourself. If there’s a taco special, order that too. The pork belly and local uni (sea urchin) tacos ($12) were the tastiest dish on the table one Thursday night.
Lully’s attentive, knowledgeable and friendly service — she’s genuinely enthusiastic to tell you about the daily specials — brightened the atmosphere of the modestly sized dining room, which is divided into two sections that can seat about three dozen customers combined. Business was slow on both nights we visited last month, which is hardly unique for new establishments, but with word spreading fast and theater season about to begin, Yobo won’t be slow for long.
— Hannah Joyce McCain