Wasabi plus coffee shouldn’t make sense. But at New York City’s year-old Round K, a kitschy Korean coffee bar on the Lower East Side, owner Ockhyeon Byeon has blended two seeming foes into one unique union. After spending two years working as a barista in Florence, Italy, Byeon decamped to Manhattan to launch a caffeine hub modeled after Korean coffee shops from the 1950s. Think a mix of dark and light wood, a smattering of found objects, and retro-looking fixtures.
Aesthetics here pay tribute to the past, with traditional espresso-based beverages pulled on a Victoria Arduino lever machine, in addition to more modern-leaning pour-over options—all using a rotating selection of coffee from producers in Colombia and Guatemala. But here, an untraditional cup reigns: the house special is a zippy, pale green wasabi latte crowned with art to make you smile.
While Byeon initially thought the marriage of wasabi and coffee would be “gross,” he realized that when combined with various flavors, wasabi serves to enhance the ingredients around it. He figured the same could hold true with wasabi and coffee.
In order to build his wasabi latte, Byeon first creates a neon green simple syrup to which he adds the plant’s green paste. He mixes that with whole or soy milk (the latter is suggested), vanilla, and sugar. He froths the mixture, then pours it over a shot of espresso, depicting either a man’s face blowing smoke or a grinning cat staring back. Optional side dish? A caramelized onion cake.
Similar to the way a swipe of wasabi serves to enhance the inherent umami in a piece of nigiri (fish and rice), so too does the addition of the spicy horseradish-flavored root in a latte (coffee and milk). Rather than overwhelm a cup, the wasabi adds a peppery bite which brings out the latte's floral notes. For the price of $4.50 per cup, Byeon’s wasabi latte can be yours, with a side of onion cake—but of course.
Kat Odell (@kat_odell) is a freelance writer based in New York and Los Angeles. Odell's forthcoming book, Day Drinking, comes out in 2017 from Workman Publishing. This is Kat Odell's first feature for Sprudge.