Posted On November 4, 2022

The mood begins with art, followed deliciously by food and cocktails

By Anne Wolfe Postic  » Photos Forrest Clonts

Boku, the Vista’s newest gathering spot, has found a home in the Columbia arts district. A large mural covering one wall is, as the kids say, a vibe. And that vibe is lively and fun, the perfect backdrop for sharing delicious Pan-Asian cuisine and artfully crafted cocktails with friends. Surrounded by art galleries, shops, and some of the city’s most well-loved restaurants, Boku fits right in while offering visitors to the area something a little different.

Owner Michael Duganier excels at creating a mood, and that begins with art at Boku. A large wall mural is complemented by chic and quirky light fixtures. Retro red bird cages encompass bare bulbs over the bar, while pendant lights made with bamboo chopsticks illuminate more intimate booths. Duganier worked with Miami-based designer Pam Manhas to give the restaurant a South Beach feel, including wide wooden plank floors and walls painted in warm hues. The mural, created by acclaimed Miami-based artist Ruben Ubiera, includes an anime style woman who winks saucily at the crowd and a rooster whose brightly colored wings spread jubilantly. The rooster, a symbol of good luck in the Chinese Zodiac, is also a nod to Columbia’s beloved University of South Carolina Gamecocks.

In one corner of the mural, the Chinese symbol for love wears a fedora. The hat is a tribute to Duganier’s long term mentor, business partner, and dear friend Bob McCarthy, who often sported the jaunty headwear. Nearly 20 years ago, the two men met when Duganier interviewed for a job with McCarthy, who spotted a photo of the Rat Pack on his newest hire’s phone.

“We bonded over that,” Duganier reminisced. “Bob had seen Sinatra in concert 12 times. So I guess you could say Sinatra got me the job.” The two men worked together for a number of years on themed restaurants, becoming great friends along the way. Eventually, they formed a partnership to open Publico in Columbia’s Five Points and Publico’s latest outpost in the BullStreet District. Sadly, McCarthy passed away in 2021, as the partners were creating their newest concept. Completing the work on Boku and bringing his and McCarthy’s vision to life has been a labor of love for Duganier.

While the artwork may be the first thing diners notice, creative cocktails and a robust menu of Pan-Asian favorites won’t fail to delight. Small plates, including crispy crab rangoon and delicious Vietnamese spring rolls, are perfect for sharing. Char siu pork bao — fluffy, subtly sweet buns stuffed with bits of flavorful barbecued pork, pickled red cabbage, cucumber, and scallions — are favorites. Bao aren’t large, about the size of dumplings, so diners should order more than one plate, to avoid fighting over them.

Lighter fare includes several salads that are large enough to serve as entrees. The ahi tuna poke chop green salad, a cabbage blend topped with soy garlic marinated raw tuna, red peppers, carrots, edamame, avocado, and fried wonton strips, is dressed with sweet and savory sesame vinaigrette. A selection of noodle dishes includes vegetarian and meat options in a variety of sauces, sure to please any palate.

Entrees include clever iterations of traditional dishes, like General Bob’s S and S chicken, a wok-fired chicken breast, peppers, and onions tossed in a house-made sweet and sour sauce. Each dish includes a wine recommendation or two for those who appreciate a little expert guidance when it comes to pairing. The menu also indicates whether dishes are vegan or gluten free for diners with allergies or preferences.

On weekdays, the doors open at 4 p.m., with happy hours each day until 6:30 p.m. And guests will be happy indeed with $7 cocktails, $6 glasses of wine, a selection of $5 appetizers, and $4 sake bombs. For the uninitiated, a sake bomb is a beer cocktail, made by balancing a shot of sake on chopsticks on top of a glass of beer. While the sake can be poured into the beer with little fanfare, pounding the table so the shot glass tumbles into the liquid below is a little more festive and turns a simple drink into an event.

Weekends are special at Boku, with a “Dim Sum X DJ” brunch served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. (Columbia locals know that Saturday brunch is harder to find than one might like, so this is a real treat.) Local DJs spin Asian house music, contributing to a lively atmosphere as diners enjoy creative takes on brunch favorites.

Offerings include banh mi avocado toast, combining a modern brunch standard with the Vietnamese street food favorite. A yuzu sticky puffle is perfect for hungry guests. The Hong Kong style waffle, made with Yoto Yuzu sake, comes with two fried chicken sticky wings topped with an over easy egg. In true dim sum style, the brunch menu includes an ample list of sharable small plates, like dumplings, egg rolls, potstickers and bao.

The standout dish is more than a meal; the 64-ounce Boku Bloody Mary is made with house bloody mix and soju, a Korean version of vodka. But that’s not all! It’s garnished with a half honey chicken, char siu pork bao, and pork potstickers. This is a cocktail — a meal, really — that’s meant to be shared, though no judgement for any diner who wants to keep it all to themselves. (Safe ride home not included, so do plan for that!)

Boku is a welcome addition to the local restaurant scene, perfect for a stylish happy hour, date night, or a celebratory group meal. The hot spot is Instagrammable in the best way — the reality is as good as the sharable snapshots captured there. No need for FOMO though, because everyone is welcome. Lively music and quirky, colorful decor make any time spent at Boku feel special, perfect for a random Tuesday that needs a little joy, a leisurely brunch among friends who want to catch up and wind down after a busy week, or really any occasion that calls for great food, intriguing cocktails, and lots of fun.