Photo by Eric Goodwin / Assistant News Editor
I’ll admit it: before going to Cup Pop, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Korean Barbecue place sandwiched in between a liquor store and a vape shop, I had never set foot in a restaurant of its kind.
Asian restaurants established in Murfreesboro tend to come from Korea’s distant neighbors across the sea, the bulging landmass of Indochina. For a poorly informed American, it’s all assumed to be Thai food.
But Korean food, and all other East Asian food, separates itself from Southeast Asian cuisine in a variety of ways. East Asian goes heavy on the soy sauce and substitutes rice noodles for buckwheat and sweet potato noodles. East Asians have a distinctively sesame-based oil usage while Southeast Asians opt for peanut oil.
I set foot in Cup Pop not knowing what to expect. The idea of a barbecue not originating in the humid refines of Memphis scared me a bit. After all, who does barbecue with anything other than smoked pork? Looking at you, Texas.
Indeed, Cup Pop reinvented my notions of barbecue in every possible sense.
The restaurant is no place for picky eaters. Bulgogi is a traditional Korean barbecue dish marked by thinly sliced beef marinated in a soy-based glaze, and the only choices besides that are a veggie cup, seafood cup and Chicken Katsu.
In the strictest definition, Cup Pop is minimal. The decorations on the walls include rustic paintings of metal spoons with trite Pinterest-style phrases frequently uttered by every grandmother in the South and posters of K-Pop stars whose talents I have no authority to judge.
Six tables sit on top of the speckled concrete floor, and cartoons play on the TV overhead. Aside from that, there’s little else to observe save for the limited menu.
Cup Pop, like the name implies, serves its entrees in a cup. The portions are generous for what the menu asks; I paid $8 for a heaping serving of Spicy Bulgogi.
After waiting a mere seven minutes, my steaming dish of Spicy Bulgogi arrived before me.
The problem with spiciness at Asian restaurants is the inconsistency. Most Asian restaurants rate their spiciness levels on scales of five or ten, an often misleading method that varies by restaurant.
Cup Pop makes it even more confusing with a scale of four, so I chose two on the scale. I wanted to play it safe, but Korean cuisine tends to be less spicy than its Southeast Asian counterparts. A three, which will be my go-to next time, likely offers the heat to clean the sinuses while not sacrificing enjoyment over gut-wrenching pain. Anyone native to regions where spicy is the norm would likely find that last statement laughable, though.
Cup Pop serves its Bulgogi aside a small helping of cold noodles and two cute soybean filled gyoza wontons, all over a bed of either steamed or fried rice. I chose fried rice and soon wished I had gone for the former.
Nothing is inherently amiss about the fried rice. Instead, it’s the combination of the rice and the Bulgogi that makes the difference. With a markedly distinct flavor to the fried rice, it distracted from the Bulgogi instead of mellowing out the flavors. Let me explain why that matters.
Anyone unfamiliar to the tastes of Korean cuisine (such as myself) will quickly learn how powerful the flavors Cup Pop’s Bulgogi are. I learned quickly, at least, and soon found that by mixing the rice with the Bulgogi, I could manage the savory sesame and soy profile without feeling burnt out halfway through the dish.
With little experience to compare it to, I have to go with my gut reaction when it comes to the beef: it’s tender and juicy, but the real flavor is in the marinade. The sauce, though a bit too salty for my liking due to the heavy reliance on soy sauce, kept my senses engaged through the powerful aroma and spice.
My lack of experience throws off the criticism I would have for the distinct ingredients. But that may be the experience of many who visit the restaurant. After Cup Pop, the nearest Korean BBQ requires a trip to Nashville. Its distinctively unique cuisine for a town lacking in culinary diversity contributes to the appeal.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about the food, nor is there any reason to drop everything and immediately run to Cup Pop. But for the hungry college student or the inquisitive eater, it could quickly become a lunch-time staple.
I finished the meal feeling quite full but not stuffed. It was enough to squeeze in one of the many imported ice creams Cup Pop offers. In a burst of audacity, I tried the sweet corn ice cream sandwich, a fun treat making use of corn flour and bits of sweet corn scattered throughout the ear-shaped dessert.
Were we in a bigger city with a variety of Bulgogi to choose from, I would give Cup Pop three out of five stars on a star rating system. But by sheer convenience, accessibility and price, it gets away with a light four.
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