Korean cuisine can be intimidating. The staples can be bizarre to American palates (yangjulgi gui is pan fried ox stomach, for example, and ke jang is pickled raw Dungeness crab in hot sauce). The spice level can be brutal for any nationality, with massive flurries of red pepper an integral part of many recipes. Plates can be enormous, meant to be paired with others for optimum taste (it helps if we already understand the recommended combos), and confusing dipping sauces abound.
So when I take my friends for a Korean meal at Hodori, my confidence is wavering. This new restaurant in Mesa advertises itself as "authentic," and is it ever. Not only have I not seen some of these dishes on any menu before, I can't even find recipes for them after extensive research of my vast arsenal of cooking references. Marinated pork feet, boiled and dipped in pickled shrimp sauce? Cod intestines braised in spicy sauce? Do people really eat this stuff?
Indeed they do, and from the throngs of Asians that pack Hodori, they love it. But I find myself choosing with hesitation, often taking just a few bites of a dish before moving on, finding a lot of it too intense for my otherwise worldly taste buds. I can absolutely appreciate the excellent quality of the food here, but I'm embarrassed to admit it -- I wimp out, and find my favorites among the more mild-mannered offerings.
1116 South Dobson, Mesa
House special lunch plate: $9.95
Seafood tofu soup: $8.95
Hot brisket soup: $6.95
Radish kimchee noodles: $9.95
480-668-7979. Hours: Lunch and dinner, daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Hodori isn't playing to folks like me anyway. Situated in a highly Asian populated neighborhood, it rests in a shopping center inhabited by Binh Minh Vietnamese restaurant (serving rice noodles with snail, tomatoes and eggs), Best Hong Kong Dining (cooking duck feet and pork belly hot pots), Asiana Market (an exotic grocery store with a deli offering spicy beef knuckle soup), and a Korean video store. Softer mouths would be more satisfied to try our more Anglo Korean places -- Tabletop Grill & Sushi at 42nd Avenue and Bethany Home, or Takamatsu at 42nd Avenue and Dunlap.
Probably the most well-known Korean dish is barbecue -- the short ribs, the rib eye beef, the pork and chicken, variously marinated and sauced. Hodori has the cue, and it does a fine job with the stuff (the house special lunch plate is a gem with beef, chicken, and spicy chicken). There are pan-fried pot stickers. Beyond that, though, it's a brave new world of delicacies like fish roe soup (salty and slippery with tofu), and soybean paste stew (a pungent casserole stocked with seafood and vegetables).
I have never tasted so many varieties of orange coloring. Thanks to the ubiquitous Korean red pepper, Hodori's soups, sauces and dressings range from deep orange, to pale orange, to simply orange, but each with a varying rainbow of flavors. Am I eating spicy black cod soup, or seafood tofu soup? Hard to tell. Again and again, I ask my waitress to identify each dish as it arrives from the kitchen -- there's no particular order with appetizers or entrees, they're served when they're ready. At certain points the young Asian girl isn't sure herself of what she's giving us; she ducks back into the kitchen for pointers.
Dinners start with kimchee. We're given eight varieties complimentary with our meals, and my waitress tells me I can choose which kind I want. She assumes I know what these pickled vegetables and fish are in the first place; I can ID cucumbers, potatoes, lettuce, seaweed, bean sprouts, but others are strictly for Asian natives. Just bring out your best, I tell her, and she does. Then she brings me more water, to quell the flames of the evil capsicum spice.
When Hodori's menu lists a dish as hot, I take heed. This after considering a throat transplant to ease the searing pain from eating the seafood tofu soup. It comes bubbling -- roiling, actually -- in a crock, and despite its friendly contents of prawns, clams and oysters, is a hellfire. An Asian gent at a nearby table sees me sample the torrid broth and choke -- he smiles at my timid American taste buds.
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I'm imagining that a "hot seasoned beef brisket soup with green onions" might be very close to my beloved, gentle Vietnamese pho. Nuh-uh. The fumes alone are so pungent they make my eyes water -- hot means hot. And this soup is almost a stew with glass noodles, shredded beef, and egg that our server cracks raw into the bowl at our table. Black cod soup is equally dangerous, a flamethrower brimming with big sliced slabs of skin-on-and-bone-in fish, chewy curly fish intestines, jalapeño, cabbage and tofu.
When the heat level is toned down, I can handle Hodori much better. Diners should memorize this number: 8. Because that's the dish that is "mushroom tofu soup with pork," an exquisite creation that showcases the jewelry of Korean cooking without blasting our American palates. This is a cauldron of complex tastes, heady with giant slices of mushroom, and gentle with custard-rich chunks of tofu floating in a vegetable broth. There's a lot to like in a noodle dish, too, the skinny pasta served cold and topped with crunchy radish kimchi.
Exciting stuff, this Korean food. But fair warning: Hodori may be too hot for most of us to handle.