The Hungry Chum: Top Bop is Korean food with training wheels
Foreign food has a tendency to make people uncomfortable. I can’t be the only one with a family member who avoids whole gastronomical regions because they are daunted by chopsticks.
With foodie culture becoming more mainstream, the everyday person seems to have gotten more adventurous. I have a rumbling stomach and an adventurous spirit. I’m determined to give ethnic restaurants the credit they deserve — which led me to Top Bop, a fast-food Asian-fusion restaurant nestled in a strip mall off Muldoon Road.
Their short menu is comprised of various types of bibimbap, a signature Korean dish that starts with a base of rice with meat, vegetables and sauce heaped on top. The food is well-known and beloved by Korean food fans and the standard version comes topped with an over-easy egg that oozes the rich yolk over the other players in the bowl.
Top Bop offers unique twists on this basic formula, adding seafood and mild to spicy sauces.
Before I got ahead of myself, I decided to consult people who really know Korean food. In my circle of acquaintances, I have some friends who could easily be called Korean culture enthusiasts.
The KCEs told me the food at Top Bop is good, and not just to unaccustomed tastes. They prefer traditional bibimbap served in a stone bowl with sticky rice that crisps up from the heat of the dish, adding another textual element. Even so, they love Top Bop, likening it to Korean food with training wheels.
“I love it here don’t get me wrong, but I always think the same thing, that this place is Korean food for people who might be wary of Korean food,” a KCE wrote to me. “Like the bibimbap sauce is sweeter and less spicy, and has less of a sesame oil taste. The rice they use is just regular white rice versus sticky rice. [It’s] good, it just changes the taste. Still delicious.”
Though I’ve grown beyond my initial fear of eating anything from a strip mall restaurant, I have to admit that I was skeptical when we pulled up and found Top Bop smack dab between a church and a tactical supply store.
We arrived around 7 p.m. on a Friday night and found the place nearly empty. Inside the restaurant is a splash of primary and secondary colors, straight from the color wheel on a grade-school art room. The walls are sparse, featuring only Top Bop emblazoned t-shirts and hats behind the counter. The basketball game in the corner is not to be missed. With high ceilings and an open floor plan, if anyone is playing the game diners are hit with the reverberating sound of the balls and the machine.
We stepped up to the counter, where a couple ahead of us was already ordering. The attentive young man behind the counter told them Top Bop has been open for a little more than three months. They paid at the tablet-based payment system and it was our turn.
I ordered the miso soup ($1.99) and the Top Bop ($6.99). If a restaurant is willing to put their name in the title of a dish, I feel obligated to try it. My most adventurous and constant dining companion, who last year got promoted to the title of husband, ordered the Bibim Bop ($7.99) and a side of kimchi ($1.99). For future reference, I’ll call him Blue Eyes. We decided to share a 24-ounce fountain soda ($1.50).
Our grand total was astounding: $20.46 before tip. Prices this low must signal poor quality ingredients or lack of flavor, I thought. Oh, how I was wrong.
Unlike other rice bowl establishments I’ve tried, Top Bop serves beautifully-composed creations rather than bowls of slop.
The Top Bop featured brilliantly spiced meatballs, fresh tomatoes and crisp lettuce. For a bowl full of grains and topped with a healthy drizzle of creamy sauce, it was filling and yet at the same time didn’t sit like a rock in my stomach. The miso was nice, mild and served at a temperature where I could eat it without having to wait for it to cool. It was priced right for the the nearly 16 ounces I was served and accented with scallions that added a bright bite.
The more traditional Bibim Bop, featured an over-easy egg, beef, rice, and an assortment of carrots, mushrooms, zucchini and bean sprouts. For Blue Eyes, who’s accustomed to trying the wilder side of every menu, it was good. But next to my more inventive dish, he said it was just OK. The kimchi was standard, perhaps a little more lackluster since it seemed to be scooped into the styrofoam cup from a jar in the back. A homemade kimchi would have complemented better.
There was a whole condiment station that we skipped, but for those who are into customizing their food with varying ranges of spice, it could be useful to jazz up the plainer options on the menu.
We left full — both our stomachs and our wallets — convinced we may have finally found a quality, affordable place to eat in Anchorage.
I asked the KCEs to visit during lunch one day, both to protect my anonymity and to get their take. They stood by their view that Top Bop is a great place to eat, but noted something I noticed during my first visit — it’s extremely popular for take-out.
I wanted to see if there was a difference in the quality of the dine-in versus take-out experience. Around dinner time on a recent weeknight I called in an order for four bowls ($8.99 each) — Japchae Bop and Bulgogi Bop at the recommendation of the KCEs, along with a Poke Bop and Dynamite Bop which feature seafood as protein. After placing the order I was told it would be ready in 15 minutes — quicker than the amount of time it would take me to get there from Midtown.
I arrived 18 minutes later and was told there would be a wait when I got there. I saw all four labeled styrofoam bowls waiting to be filled, so I took a seat at one of the high top tables mixed in with the lower tables in Top Bop. In about three minutes, I had my food and two apologies from staff for the wait. I entered the restaurant at 6:41 p.m. and was back in the car by 6:48 p.m.
When I got the food home and freed the bowls of their toppers, I was not disappointed. It was quite a visual feast.
The Bulgogi Bop was probably our least favorite, because like the Bibim Bop, it paled in comparison to its more fanciful brethren. If the other bowls were a carnival, the Bulgogi was a beige waiting room. The meat reminded me of jerky with its drier texture and flavor. The mushrooms were another disappointment, clearly coming from a can or jar, throwing off the freshness of the whole bowl with their gummy blandness.
The Japchae Bop is made of transparent noodles, beef, cabbage, scallions, mushrooms, rice and sesame seeds. Luckily, there was only one mushroom to be found. The meat was nice and beefy, slightly salty and sweet which hints of teriyaki. It wasn’t spicy and was quite an umami trip for my tastebuds.
Next up was the Poke Bop, topped with raw tuna, raw salmon and masago. Masago is the bright, red roe known most commonly in sushi. It comes from Capelin, an Atlantic and Artic fish, and is much cheaper than the prized Tobiko sushi roe. It’s cheaper and widely substituted for Tobiko in more affordable sushi bars. All the ingredients, including the Masago, were fresh. The soft, raw fish was like a cloud, then you’d be struck by the crunch of the cucumber and lettuce, then come back to Earth with the rice and sauce. Each bite left me wanting more.
Lastly, and our hands-down favorite, was the Dynamite Bop. While the Poke Bop was cold, the Dynamite Bop is served warm. Tiny shrimp, pieces of crab and masago were place atop a mix of corn kernels, rice, green onions and sauce. Talk about a mouthfeel — this had such a variety of textures. The corn and lettuce kept their crunch, even under the warm sauce and shellfish.
I’d like to say that we had leftovers, especially considering we ordered four meals, but we had little left to save. That, to me, is the hallmark of a great dish.
Welcome to the World of Food
While the restaurant’s tagline, “Have a rice day!” seems cheesy at first, after going to Top Bop it feels sincere. Their website is modern and simple, pronouncing their food as both affordable and healthy. The first I can definitely attest, as for the healthy part, I’m no doctor.
The young entrepreneurs behind Top Bop are bringing Anchorage a bit of culture in an approachable way — offering a gateway to more exotic, toothsome treasures. I wholly suggest you take them up on it.
Monday – Friday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday: Noon to 8 p.m.
220 Muldoon Road
Who is The Hungry Chum?
Always in search of the next great meal, The Hungry Chum brings you regular restaurant reviews with honest opinions. The views expressed are the writer’s, not necessarily those of Denali Media or its employees.
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