The Counter at Paldo Market

Earlier this summer, we debuted a new Chow Bella feature, "Dare to Dine" -- in which a totally terrified member of our staff agrees to eat at a restaurant chosen by one of his or her colleagues. For the first assignment, we sent Web Editor Jonathan McNamara to Sing High Chop Suey House in downtown Phoenix. He survived, and in return was rewarded the right to make the next dare: He sent a trained chef to a row of red bar stools in the back of an out of the way Tempe Korean grocery, Paldo Market. Here's what Jonathan had to say about it:

Dare to Dine is a game of Russian Roulette. Somewhere in your environment is an eatery with a fifty-fifty chance of providing you with culinary delight or severe stomach problems. Of course you want to know which side of the scales it's on, but why risk your own gastro-intestinal well-being when you can send a patsy?

Paldo Market is an immaculately clean Korean market in Tempe, hidden away in a shopping center with a gym, a pizza place and a furniture rental store. You'd hardly know it was a market from the outside; let alone that the market has an actual dining counter in the very back corner of the store. I've shopped here numerous times and walked by that dining counter (which is all of two feet from a refrigerated section of the store) and never seen a cook or any patrons. I wanted to know if the counter actually served anything and, if so, whether it is a diamond in the rough or an after-thought taking up space in a grocery store. I knew Carol Blonder would find out and that I could trust her opinion on the joint.

Find out how Carol fared, after the jump.

Good thing my dare to dine instructions included the key word red stools. If not, I could have just wandered the aisles of Paldo Market, filled my basket with seaweed the length of a broomstick, a variety of house made kimchee, guchujang paste, and gimbap and called it a good shopping discovery.

The dining counter sits across from a cold case filled with freshly prepared Korean fare to go. Framed by overhanging curtains, it's easy to mistake it for a simple pass through to the prepared food kitchen unless already occupied with diners.

When I accepted the dare to dine challenge, my Korean menu vocabulary was limited to kimchee, gimbap, bulgogi, kalbi and knowledge of a few signature ingredients like the guchujang (chili) paste. It was a relief that the counter menu was printed with loose English translations, except for the daily special. The special remained a mystery to me until I was joined at the counter by a young couple who gave me a quick tutorial in Korean cuisine.

I wanted to try a dish I hadn't tried before in a Korean restaurant, so I ordered the spicy squid. Stir fired with green chili, red pepper flakes and soy the squid was served with steaming white rice and 3 banchan (side dishes), fish cake, chive pancakes, and crab cakes. The squid was toothsome outside and tender within, coated with plenty of sauce to mix with the rice. The thin pieces of fish cake coated with a sesame sauce and sesame seed garnish and the chive pancakes were a mellow contrast to the spicy squid. The squid and the small plates had a fresher taste and better flavor than any meal I've eaten inside a local Asian market.

Eyeing the meals served to the other diners at the counter, I noticed each dish came with different banchan: small cured anchovies (myulchi bokkeum), neon green ocean salad (seaweed and cellophane noodles), and cucumber kimchee. I discovered the special was sujebi (hand torn noodle soup), the broth made from anchovy and kelp and filled with chunks of potato and wide flat torn noodles.
The portions were generous enough to require a take out container for my leftovers, inspiring a stop at the cold case to stock up on the house made goodies on my way out. That led to a browse through the aisles filled with Korean imports, then the fresh produce, and on to the whole fresh fish and meats ready for the grill. I dared to dine and then I shopped till I dropped. I left feeling sorry that this little gem is far from my neighborhood.