Note: Koca Lounge is closed.
Lower East Side newcomer Koca Lounge has had a rough start. It opened last fall, but initially without a liquor license. It has gone largely unnoticed by the critics, but the two who’ve reviewed it—Paul Adams in The Sun and Evan Mantyk in The Epoch Times—have been pleased.
The name is also not in its favor. “Koca” comes from a Thai word for a boiling hot pot that you use to cook your own food. The Japanese version of it, shabu shabu, is considerably more familiar. But to Westerners, “Koca” suggests coffee or cocaine, neither of which is the image the owners want. The restaurant started with an even stranger name, “Outlet Koca Lounge,” which was simply bizarre. “Outlet” has now been wisely dropped.
With that out of the way, we come to the food at Koca Lounge, which is not only wonderful, but also surprisingly inexpensive. The menu is in numerous categories, with “snacks” ($2–12), noodle dishes ($9–13), stir fry ($8–9), “plates” ($11–14), hot pots (four choices, $17), meat and seafood for the hot pots ($7–11), sweets ($6), and chocolate hot pots ($11).
The category called “snacks” is roughly equivalent to appetizers. Thai Meatballs with Peanut Sauce ($7) came with two skewers of four deep-fried meatballs apiece, along with a peanut sauce for dipping. Cumin Grilled Baby Lamb Chops with Japanese Pepper & Cucumber Yogurt Sauce ($12) came with three pepper-crusted lamb chops and a wonderful dipping sauce.
We saw the same dishes coming out of the kitchen over and over again, so obviously the other tables were as drawn to these choices as we were. Both were terrific, and the lamb must be one of the better bargains in town. Where else do you get three lamb chops for $12?
Four hot pots are offered, named for the seasons. Each one comes with a bountiful plate of bok choy, enoki mushrooms, cauliflower, corn, seasonal greens, taro, egg dumplings and fish cakes. The server suggested that one additional meat selection would be ample, and indeed it was. We chose the prime ribeye ($8), along with the Winter hot pot, a heavy beef broth with Szechuan spices.
Obviously this wasn’t traditional shabu shabu (they don’t serve Szechuan spices in Japan), but it had all the usual trappings. The hot pot was brought to a boil, then we added the vegetables, since they take a short while to cook. The ribeye was sliced paper-thin, and each piece cooked through in about 15–20 seconds. I thought the meatnwas sliced a little too thin, as some of the pieces fell apart inside the pot.
After you’re done eating, the remaining broth makes an appealing soup. This is the part I most look forward to, but there wasn’t as much left as I would have liked. On past occasions, I recall the pot starting more full. At one restaurant, I remember the server coming by mid-meal and adding more broth, but that wasn’t done here.
At some shabu shabu houses, the cooking apparatus is built right into the tables. At Koca Lounge, each table has a built-in induction burner, which heats the pot without getting hot itself. Even the seats at the bar have the burners, so it is pretty clear that the restaurant considers the hot pots its main attraction. The tables are a bit small: ours just barely accommodated the hot pot, two plates of ingredients, our own plates, glasses, and a wine bottle.
The décor is typical Lower East Side post-industrial chic. There’s also an outdoor garden (sans induction burners). There’s a sound track of pop favorites that doesn’t add much to the atmosphere, but at least isn’t loud or obnoxious. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, but on Friday night it hardly mattered: not a soul was there when we arrived (around 7:30 p.m.), and by the time we left only about six tables were occupied, plus another two outside.
To go with our meal, we ordered a Rioja, which at $27 was the most expensive red wine on the menu. (There are also a number of sakes available.) The total bill before tip came to about $76 including tax, making Koca Lounge one of the better bargains we’ve experienced in a long time.
Koca Lounge (76 Orchard St. between Broome St. and Grand St., Lower East Side)