By Heather Hoch
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Korean Restaurant, 1414 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 994-5995. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Wednesday, 5 to 10 p.m.
These are the times that try men's Seouls.
The Valley's Asian community is growing at a phenomenal rate. Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are springing up as fast as new subdivisions. Unfortunately, fans of Korean food have far fewer eating-out options. You can count all the Korean restaurants in town on the fingers of one hand, and still have enough digits left over to play the trumpet.
Why? Unlike its Asian neighbors, the Land of the Morning Calm doesn't enjoy a great culinary reputation. Korean food lacks Chinese sophistication, Japanese delicacy, Thai complexity and Vietnamese subtlety. Korean fare comes across as more straightforward. And its flavor spectrum doesn't range over quite as broad a scale as other regional cuisines. Just about everything that comes out of a Korean kitchen plays with a four-note combination of essential flavors: soy, ginger, hot pepper and garlic. The result: pungent, vigorously seasoned dishes that, at first contact, can seem to lack variety. But it's a mistake to think that culinary art, like any other art, can't transcend its forms. After all, Shakespeare crafted dazzling poetry into rigid, 14-line sonnets. Blues musicians create magic out of only three chords. There's no reason Korean fare, despite its limitations, can't be just as polished.
1414 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85257
Region: South Scottsdale
At Korean Restaurant, it is. This new place is set in a Papago Plaza storefront, run by an American-husband-and-Korean-wife team operating along the usual division-of-labor lines: He's out front, chatting with customers; she's in the back, cooking.
The dining room has a neat, spare, ethnic look. Paintings of home-country scenes hang from one wall; paneled mirrors line another. Paper-panel screens set off different parts of the space, making the room seem less boxy.
But while you can get through the decor features pretty easily, it takes a lot more effort to make your way through the menu. Korean Restaurant offers by far the most extensive assortment of Korean fare in the Valley. And most of it is very appealing.
For first-timers, the bulky menu and its dozens of unfamiliar dishes may seem a little intimidating. But the affable proprietor is eager to answer questions, check your hot-pepper tolerance levels and make recommendations.
You could start off nibbling the kim bap, a California roll described as "Korean-style sushi." But why come here for such a pedestrian appetizer? Instead, try mandoo: light, pot-sticker-type dumplings, prepared fried or steamed. Either way, make sure you dunk them into the pungent, chile-fired dipping sauce. This ensures that your taste buds will be fully awake for the main-dish assault to follow.
Perhaps my favorite dish here is pajuen, one of 10 "House Specials." It's a huge, starchy pancake about the size of a medium pizza. It's even cut into slices like a pizza. But don't look for cheese, sausage or mushroom toppings. This beauty is distinctively embedded with oysters, shrimp and octopus and green onion, a triumph of taste and texture.
Nakbul jungol is another house special, the most expensive platter here at $29.50. The menu says it feeds "two or more persons." Actually, it will probably feed an army, or at least a brigade. An enormous vessel that looks to be as deep as a kiddy pool is filled to the brim with octopus, sliced beef, noodles and masses of veggies in a chile-spiked broth. You'll be dabbing little beads of perspiration off your forehead after just a few bites, a sure sign of this dish's genuine national character. A bottle of Obi, a flavorful Korean beer, helps you deal with the heat.
Noodle lovers have a menu page devoted to their happiness. Bibim naeng myun is luscious, buckwheat noodles coated with a hard-hitting, spicy sauce. Chap chae, a Korean restaurant noodle staple, offers clear noodles tossed with beef, chicken or pork. Bibim gooksu is less interesting, thin rice noodles in a one-dimensional hot sauce.
If you don't mind low-level risk-taking, consider the dolsot bibim bap. It's a scorchingly hot stoneware pot artistically layered with rice, beef, veggies and egg. Once you've inspected the decorative arrangement, you mix all the ingredients together. My favorite part: scraping the crispy rice off the sides of the bowl.
Every Korean restaurant serves bul-kogi, grilled, sliced barbecued beef. But not every place serves doeji bul-kogi, grilled, sliced barbecued pork. Here, it's tender and tasty, doused in a thick, fiery sauce. Spoon it over rice, and feel the warmth.
If you're itching for the full ethnic experience, make your way over to the "Stir Fried Entrees." There you'll find samsun bokeum, heaps of octopus, squid and shrimp teamed with carrots, snow peas and mushrooms in a typically sharp sauce. You'll need a good set of incisors, however, if our dish was any guide: Some of the squid and octopus turned out to be jaw-breakingly tough. If this is a potential problem, you might consider laying out an extra two bucks for the saeu bokeum. It's the same dish, except the squid and octopus are replaced by additional shrimp.
Naturally, all dishes are accompanied by kim chee--the hot, spicy, garlic-packed pickled cabbage that's Korea's national condiment--as well as several other pickled, garlic-packed veggies like bean sprouts, radish, seaweed, turnip and squash. If your group is traveling in one car, you'll need to eat some in self-defense.
Whether you're a homesick native pining for dishes from the Old Country, or just a hungry local looking for ethnic-restaurant adventure, you can count on Korean Restaurant's Seoul food to send you home with garlic on your breath, sweat on your brow and a smile on your face.
Best Hong Kong Dining, 1116 South Dobson, Mesa, 655-8262. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Today's multiple-choice question: You find yourself in a shopping strip that houses a well-stocked Asian grocery, a Vietnamese restaurant, a Vietnamese bakery and a Chinese restaurant in which whole glazed pigs and ducks are hung for your inspection. You are in a) New York b) San Francisco c) Los Angeles d) Mesa.
Just a few years ago, the only people guessing "d" were either the offspring of first cousins or Timothy Leary's happy-hour guests. How times have changed. These days, you can answer "Mesa" in perfect confidence.
Best Hong Kong Dining opened for business last fall, operating out of a storefront that used to be a Thai restaurant. Management has kept the Thai ornaments, but added a few Chinese touches of its own. You can't miss the dangling swine and poultry. Alongside them you'll spot metal chafing trays filled with parts of these animals that your neighborhood supermarket doesn't carry. You'll also notice live seafood cavorting in a fish tank.
If you read Chinese, you'll know immediately what Best Hong Kong Dining is about. Just inside the doorway is a large, framed Chinese ideograph that means "noodle."
The menu tells the story. Unlike most Chinese menus, the one here isn't divided into sections of "Beef," "Pork," "Chicken" and "Vegetables." The headings here read "Chow Mein and Chow Fun," "Noodle Soups," "Lo Mein," "BBQ" and "Chinese Dishes."
The food is wonderfully tasty and astonishingly cheap. If I lived in this neighborhood, it wouldn't pay to eat at home.
The "BBQ" listings are good enough to make you think you're on Mott Street in Manhattan's Chinatown, not South Dobson in Mesa. Meaty, glazed barbecued pork spare ribs are just like the ones Mom used to take out, bone-gnawingly good. If you prefer picking up your pork with chopsticks instead of your hands, you can opt for the sliced barbecued pork in perfect confidence. The meat is fresh, tender and deeply flavored. The kitchen also features a superbly seasoned "Five Spices Roast Chicken," half a bird hacked into pieces and coated with a lip-smacking sauce.
Best Hong Kong Dining's noodles could become an East Valley tourist attraction. Chow fun--wide, starchy rice noodles--is terrific, especially the beef version draped with a pungent black bean sauce. Roast duck lo mein features an enormous pile of thin noodles, heaps of meaty duck and change back from a five. Don't overlook chow mein--it's not what you get at "one from column A, one from column B" places. Fashioned from crispy noodles, the Hong Kong-style chicken chow mein is not a Westernized platter.
The non-noodle dishes are also skillfully crafted. Beef with bitter melon over rice is an eye-opening delight. The combination of flavors has real ethnic flair. Scallops with black bean sauce are also exceptional, a mound of juicy scallops teamed with pepper and onion in an irresistible sauce. Even though it's the most expensive dish on the menu, it's still a bargain at $7.95. And if you order the Chinese broccoli, you get the real Asian-vegetable deal, not the American model. Moistened with a fragrant oyster sauce, this greenery has enough nutrients to last two people a week. At $3.50, it's cheaper than vitamin supplements, and a whole lot tastier.
Oddly enough, the only disappointing dish we encountered was recommended by our waiter. He suggested kung pao shrimp, a dull, undistinguished platter that lacked the hard-hitting flavors we found everywhere else. Maybe he thought it was all our occidental-looking group could handle. (In fact, I was dining with Westerners who'd spent a decade in Hong Kong.) It's common, though, for home-country waiters in ethnic restaurants to steer non-natives away from the more interesting fare. Unless you're a frightened novice, stick with your instincts.
Two more notes: It's hardly soup season, but the kitchen puts together wonderful noodle soups, meals in a bowl like the seafood noodle broth. And cognoscenti can find congee, a glutinous porridge whose charms are an acquired taste I haven't fully acquired.
I've never thought Mesa much of an ethnic-dining destination. But it looks like Best Hong Kong Dining is about to rearrange my navigational charts.
Dolsot bibim bap
Best Hong Kong Dining:
Beef with bitter melon
Five spices roast chicken
Beef chow fun
Roast duck lo mein