Dwaejibulgogi is thinly sliced pork tenderloin in a spicy Korean marinade. It is served with rice and banchan. Photo courtesy of Soju.

When Monroeville native Simon Chough worked as a biochemist, hours in the lab felt like years. But in the kitchen at Chef Mavro, a famed Hawaiian restaurant, days went by in a flash.

Chough did a grueling apprenticeship at the Honolulu hotspot, working 12-hour days, six days a week, for no pay.

“They were really hard on me, but it was an exciting place to be,” he says with a laugh. “I realized that it was the kind of thing I wanted to do.”

Fried tofu is tossed in a pineapple-soy glaze. Photo courtesy of Soju.

In April, Chough opened Soju, a Korean bar and restaurant on Penn Avenue in Garfield. The menu is a culinary tribute to his Korean grandmother, Ursula Chough, who incorporated American touches into her homeland recipes. The family matriarch stops by every Friday evening to eat and advise.

Korean meals, the chef explains, are a delicate balancing act of sweet, salty, savory and spicy.

Kalbi — grilled, barbecue short ribs — are served with rice and “banchan,” side dishes, such as pickled cucumbers and kimchi to cleanse the palate.

The Hawaiian-style poke (pronounced poh-kay) is marinated raw ahi tuna over hot rice with sweet shoyu or spicy mayo marinade. Katsu Curry is a hearty stew perfect for warming up on a cold fall day.

Gimbap, a sushi roll filled with vegetables, roots, egg and marinated beef, is, in Chough’s opinion, the perfect bite.

Chough believes this East-meets-West fusion makes his place more approachable than more traditional Korean restaurants. And folks who are still apprehensive about trying new things can always hit the bar before eating.

Soju, a Korean rice liquor similar to vodka, is a staple in many of the signature cocktails created by bartenders Rachel Haggerman and Gina Colazzi.

The Soju Punch, for instance, combines Chum Churum soju with Maggie’s Farm white rum, pineapple, pomegranate, ginger, Yakuroto yogurt and Chilsung Soda.

Other offerings include the Purple Rain, made with Plymouth Gin, lavender pea flower soju, lemongrass and lemon juice. Chough recommends the Paloma, a Mezcal-based Bloody Mary with Ting Grapefruit Soda, lime and a salt rim.

Enjoy a Soju Punch at the bar. Photo courtesy of Soju.

Chough’s restaurant is a family affair. Along with his grandmother’s regular visits, Chough’s pastry chef cousin, Tracy Uzuil, makes a mean cheesecake.

And he’s come to love his staff like kin.

Tuesday through Saturday, sous chef Harold Linnert works side by side with Chough as they churn out eats to the 30-seat dining room. Dishwasher Andrew Fletcher is enthusiastic to move up in the restaurant ranks, keeping an eye on the cooking action as he cleans.

“They’re literally perfect,” Chough says of his crew. “I’m happy that people enjoy working here and are passionate about what they do. It makes everything so much better.”

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.