By Heather Hoch
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By Heather Hoch and Lauren Saria
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Damn that Tony Bourdain.
Whenever I watch No Reservations, his jet-setting culinary Travel Channel show, I end up with unbearable cravings for foreign food that I stand no chance of finding in this country. At least, not in Arizona. It's often a dish I never knew existed, but after hearing his description of it and seeing him eat it I feel like I can't live without it.
Good thing the Valley has good Korean food, then, because a recent episode made me obsessed with kimchi. Sure, I've eaten plenty of the spicy pickled cabbage, but after seeing Bourdain's travel companion a young Korean gal who lives in New York and works behind the scenes on his show giddily dig her hands into a huge container of homemade kimchi, I had a new mission.
Bulgogi lunch plate: $7.95
Seafood tofu soup: $8.95
BBQ short ribs: $14.95
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Thing is, Korean cuisine is still hard to come by. While the local Korean community is active the Korean Cultural Center just hosted a kimchi festival, and regularly offers language classes it's small. You could say the same about the Chinese or Japanese communities, too (Asians make up only 2.1 percent of the state population, according to 2004 U.S. Census Bureau statistics), but when it comes to food, Chinese is already mainstream, and Japanese is so ubiquitous that you can find sushi at Safeway. Traditional barbecued meats and unique seasonings could make Korean food stand out, but the popularity hasn't kicked in not in metro Phoenix, anyway.
Which is why I'm glad I came across Gomo's Korean Restaurant, a clean, bright little eatery on Ray Road. The fact that it was tucked in a busy strip mall alongside an American tavern and a pizza place gave me hope for the future of Korean food here. Who knows? Maybe someday places like Gomo's will be as widespread as sandwich and taco shops.
Gomo's has that kind of easy neighborhood vibe. There's no mood lighting, no exotic decor, none of the built-in tabletop grills that you sometimes find at more formal Korean restaurants. Wall panels built to look like sliding screens are interspersed with mirrors, a few posters for imported liquor, and sheets of paper printed with the house specials. At the back of the room, behind a broad counter, stacks of traditional tableware and utensils line the shelves. It's casual, so I'd feel comfortable dropping by just to grab lunch by myself, although I'd definitely leave with leftovers.
Big portions? Yeah, not a shocker. Even a lunch plate special of bulgogi (marinated, barbecued rib-eye beef) was heaped with enough meat to fill a couple of stomachs. I know how Asians like to eat family-style, especially at dinner "gomo" means "aunt," by the way sharing a whole table of dishes instead of hoarding an individual entree. Gomo's is certainly going for that crowd with these generous servings, as well as with the menu itself, written in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese.
I have a couple of thoughts on this. First, it wouldn't hurt to ask your server about the portions. With many items on the menu under 15 bucks, it'd be easy to assume that these are single-serving entrees. Turns out, a lot of this is sharable.
And while going with a group is a blast, what happens when you're all by your lonesome, or it's just you and a friend? At lunchtime, at least, Gomo's could stand to offer a few more things on its list of plate specials less money for less grub, still plenty for one person.
I'm not really complaining, because the food here was good, and I inhaled my leftovers. At Korean restaurants, I always look forward to the banchan, traditional side dishes that come with every order, along with steaming bowls of white rice. Gomo's offered six different tastes: Napa cabbage and daikon kimchi; sesame-tinged bean sprouts; seaweed salad with slivers of jalapeño; sweet, seasoned potatoes; and mild slivers of fish cake. Every table gets an iceberg lettuce salad with peanut dressing, too. On one visit, a server was mortified to discover that we never got our rice, but honestly, with so many things on the table, we didn't notice.
The banchan would've easily sufficed as appetizers, but I did order a couple of starters. The pan-fried kimchi jun with kimchi mixed into the batter was described as a pancake-sized patty, but it was actually as big as a pizza. Sliced into eight large wedges, it came with a side of salty, tangy soy dipping sauce that helped cut some of the greasiness. Crisp pan-fried potstickers (goon mandoo) also came with sauce, but they were tasty on their own, with fragrant pork and green onion filling sort of like fried pierogi-meet-gyoza.
Entrees got the kind of dramatic presentation you'd expect from a traditional Korean restaurant. My bibimbop white rice, thin slices of soy-flavored beef, and slivers of vegetables that you mix together with spicy sauce showed up in a hot stone pot, with rice crackling into an appetizing crisp at the bottom. Seafood tofu soup one of 11 soft tofu specialties here bubbled furiously for a long time, slowly cooking the raw egg that my waitress cracked over the bowl. While the rich, seaweed-flecked broth cooled down, I fished out whole prawns and clams to eat them from a plate.
I could hear the sizzling meat platters coming before they arrived at the table. Every bite of bulgogi was rich, with a sweet flavor from the marinade. Tender barbecued short ribs (johk-kalbi) and smoky chicken (dahk bulgogi) were presented atop piles of sliced white onions, which cooked down into caramelized sweetness by the end of the meal.
And my friend's plateful of glass noodles (chap chae) was so big we laughed in amazement. This is an accessible dish that's easily as craveable as lo mein at a Chinese restaurant and, in a better world, it would be just as common so I wish Gomo's offered a half-portion. In any case, it was easy to love, with luscious clear noodles, thin slices of beef, slivers of carrot, onion, and zucchini, and meaty cuts of black Chinese mushroom.
There wasn't much in the way of dessert here, but there was an impressive list of boba iced tea drinks all the rage with Asian teens that were sweet enough to qualify. I tried a creamy, not-too-sweet red bean smoothie, rich Thai tea, sweet melon tea, and smooth taro milk tea. All of the drinks can be ordered with or without boba, as well as several flavors of fruit jelly. Like everything else on the menu, they were quite filling.
While the drinks offered relief from spicy flavors, I have to mention that Gomo's does not go overboard on the heat factor. Some folks may shy away from Korean food because they expect a too-hot surprise. Kimchi dishes? Yes spicy, as predicted. The "spicy pork stew"? Peppery as hell, and really delicious. But nothing caught me off guard, and when I asked for medium spice, that's what I got. Korean flavors are complex, and they go well beyond red chile.
Someday, they just might catch on.