IOWA CITY — Shanshan Kong had three goals when she opened La Wine Bar & Restaurant in downtown Iowa City this fall: to give Asian international students a place where they could get a taste of home; to encourage Americans to try the Korean-Chinese cuisine she grew up with; and to give everyone who came in a place to have a good time.
“I know there are a lot of Chinese international students who feel alone in American life because it’s totally different,” she said. “I want to offer real Asian food.”
But she doesn’t want only Asian students to try the restaurant.
“I want to deliver the message to the American audience about how we eat in Asia,” she said. “I think it will take a little time, but more and more people will try it and enjoy it.”
Inside the restaurant, the phrase, “Why are we here? For fun,” is written on the wall above a stage, which is set up for karaoke, live bands and DJs. A shelf of board games is tucked in one corner. A light ball hanging from the ceiling flashes colored lights around the room, while K-pop plays loudly on the speakers. Other walls are covered with graffiti-style murals, which were already in the space from its previous iterations as BeerBurger and Zombie Burger.
Kong said those murals were a large part of why she wanted to lease the restaurant. They fit her vision for a vibrant, carefree place to hang out, drink and eat.
“The space is pretty cool,” she said. “I thought, let’s get this place and have fun.”
Kong is originally from Yanbian, in northeast China near the border with North Korea. The area has a large ethnic Korean population, and Kong said Korean cuisine is prevalent. She missed it when she left home.
She came to the United States as an international student and graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a master’s degree in international business. She then moved to New York City but found it too crowded for her liking. A friend in Iowa City suggested she move here.
“There is more opportunity for a business here,” she said. “It’s not just big cities that can have good business.”
Although she just opened La Wine Bar at the end of September, she’s already considering a second business, which she envisions serving desserts and selling boutique items like jewelry and accessories.
Kong said many of her ingredients are imported from China, Japan and Korea, and the recipes are ones she collected from family and friends back home. She said she’s always enjoyed cooking, and this was a chance to turn that into a business.
“I love cooking. A lot of Chinese students would always come to my house, and I would cook,” she said. “When I lived in New York, I never cooked, but in Iowa, I cannot get the local food.”
One popular dish from Yanbian is beer hot pot, where beer is heated to boiling at the table and used to cook ingredients like thinly sliced beef, vegetables and mushrooms. In Iowa City, Kong uses Coors Lite for the hot pot.
She also has embraced other American staples on her appetizer menu, which includes fried mushrooms, onion rings, chicken wings and more. She hopes that will encourage more people who are unfamiliar with Asian food to give La Wine Bar & Restaurant a try.
The menu also includes a mix of Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisine.
The Japanese dishes include okonomiyaki, a savory pancake with seafood, and stir fried noodles with seafood.
Korean dishes include bibimbap, spicy roasted pork, a fried egg and vegetables served with rice; kimchi fried rice; Korean fried chicken; beef or pork with spicy chili sauce; pajeon, a Korean-style seafood pancake; jajangmyean, which has noodles, pork, egg, vegetables and soybean paste; and naengmyon, cold buckwheat noodle soup with beef, crab, egg and vegetables in beef broth.
Also available are seaweed wraps, grilled and marinated dishes, and more.
Beverages include bubble tea, which is made to order and canned in-house, and, true to the bar moniker, plenty of harder drinks, including a list of 40 flavored, vibrantly colored shots.
Kong said her favorite feeling is when people tell her a dish has made them feel less homesick.
“When people come in to try our food and drink, I ask them if they like it,” she said. “When they say they feel like they are in China, I feel so excited.”
If You Go
• What: La Wine Bar & Restaurant
• Where: 180 E. Burlington St., Iowa City
• Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight daily. Will be open until 2 a.m. this spring and summer.
• Details: (319) 519-6999, facebook.com/lawinebar
Comments: (319) 398-8339; firstname.lastname@example.org
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