CART IN THE ACT

Kim Chee House, 4214 West Dunlap, Phoenix, 842-0400. Hours: Monday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.

Korean fare has never been as popular as Chinese, as trendy as Thai or as upscale as Japanese. Perhaps diners think it has nothing special to offer.

That misguided notion will be quickly dispelled after a visit to Kim Chee House, a wonderful, no-frills, west-side Korean restaurant.

What distinguishes Korean food from that of its Asian neighbors is the heavy emphasis on garlic, red chile and green onions. Eat here with your very best friends--you'll need to be quarantined from the non-Korean-food-eating world for about 24 hours. And bring plenty of Kleenex to cope with the hot and pungent flavors.

A few Korean-tourist-bureau posters and a refrigerated display case featuring huge jars of homemade kim chee provide the room's principal adornments, reminding the largely Korean clientele of home. In the front room, you sit surrounded by fake wood paneling in dark, maroon booths that look like they were snatched from a defunct American coffee shop. Diners accustomed to dreary Chinese appetizers like egg rolls or fried shrimp can satisfy that craving here, if they wish. But the Korean starters are so good, you may be tempted not to move on to the main dishes.

Pan-fried rice ovalletes featured thick, lip-smacking rice flour pasta, studded with thin-sliced beef and green onion. It all rested in a zippy, red-chile sauce that is guaranteed to make you forget cool Valley winter nights. It was the first time I've raised a sweat indoors since September.

The hefty onion pancake is, surprisingly, made from dried mung beans. Kind of like a starchy frittata, it's crammed with green onions. It's crisply fried, and it arrived sizzling-hot and fresh. I wish, though, that the cook had left out the Surimi--a processed fish product.

The heart-smart people have made little headway against the Korean fondness for beef. But don't look for hulking, one-pound slabs of sirloin here. Bul-kogi is thinly cut beef marinated in soy sauce, ginger and garlic. Then it's broiled on a fiery hot skillet with a mountain of green onions. At $6.99 the platterful is a bargain.

The more adventurous should consider Dol Sot Bi Bim Bob. The name made me a little suspicious at first. It sounded too much like a linebacker for Seoul A&M. In fact, this dish is a sizzling stone pot filled with a pleasing arrangement of spinach, sprouts, carrots, zucchini, green onions and sticky rice, topped by a fried egg. After giving us a chance to admire the presentation, the server stirred it up, adding a spicy, red-chile sauce. It's got a delightful texture, and it's exotic without being too far-out.

Another winner is Chap Che, glass noodles with spinach, slivered zucchini and carrots, marinated barbecued beef and hunks of roasted garlic. Do not eat this dish right before a job interview.

All main dishes come with an assortment of pickled hot condiments, staples of Korean fare. Best known is kim chee, made from cabbage. There's zucchini, garlic, cucumber, lettuce and garlic, as well.

On a cool, winter night, it's hard to resist one of the outstanding dinner soups. Duk Man Doo is my favorite: a steaming, egg-drop broth generously filled with rice ovalletes, beef, seaweed and six scrumptious meat dumplings. The seaweed gives the soup a somewhat quirky flavor, but it's one you can get hooked on pretty quickly.

When I asked about the dessert, the server apologetically explained that there was nothing beyond the spearmint gum that comes with the check.

That was fine with me. Desserts often don't travel well across cultures. Years ago we had Korean neighbors who brought us a platter of sweets. To my untrained palate, they all tasted remarkably like the eraser on a No. 2 pencil.

Kim Chee House offers the holy trinity of restaurant characteristics I worship: cheap, filling, interesting. It should pep up the spirits of any jaded Orientalists looking for honest Seoul food.

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