Growing up near the Pacific Ocean, I've eaten my fair share of seafood. But I was a little unnerved when I unearthed an unidentifiable withered, round mystery from my bowl of haemul jungol - a bubbling seafood stew served piping hot at Hodori, a Korean restaurant in Mesa. The giant silver bowl of soup, called a "casserole" on the restaurant's menu, included a medley of familiar ocean creatures - everything from head-on shrimps, whole crabs, and clams to one large squid the server cut into pieces with scissors before plopping them into the crimson broth.
I was okay with that. And the soup was delicious, overflowing with triangles of soft tofu, thick udon-style noodles, and fresh vegetables and herbs, an entrée for two that simmered on a tabletop convection burner until the piquant smells could no longer be resisted. Each spoonful delivered a delicate balance of briny ocean flavor and a pleasing level of spice.
But then, this little grey clod. Was it animal or plant? I couldn't say. Gingerly balancing it in my spoon, I presented the mass to the server for identification.
"Oh," she said politely, not entirely hiding her disdain for the little thing. "It's a sea squirt...there's liquid inside."
She paused, adding, "I don't eat them."
Reassured that this ocean animal was in fact edible (if not always enjoyable) I put it in my mouth. As instructed, a bite on the thin but leathery exterior released a flood of mildly briny liquid before my teeth hit the invertebrate animal's innards. I mustered the courage to swallow the sea squirt's, um, squirt - but crunching on the mixture of skin and insides proved too much to handle. The rest wound up in my napkin.
And I walked away with bragging rights, thanks to Hodori.
For more than a decade, this unassuming strip mall spot has been serving traditional cuisine to steady crowds of Korean-American diners. And in addition to basics like bibim bap and bulgoli, you'll also find a wide selection of less common eats. Resist the temptation to go for the familiar and - sea squirts aside - you will be rewarded.
My first visit took place on a Friday night, and Korean-speaking customers packed nearly every table. The restaurant's simple dining room consists of two rooms joined by a connecting archway, both usually filled with large parties of diners. Thanks to tiled flooring and sparse décor, it can get pretty loud - though in my opinion the din of English and Korean conversation adds to the charm.
You might be inclined to start with something such as bibim bap, a popular and approachable dish that combines thinly sliced carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, and other vegetables with white rice, marinated rib eye, and a fried egg. With a generous dash of the accompanying hot sauce it's a perfectly acceptable meal but pales in comparison to any number of other options.
The kimchi bokum bap is a perfect example. Served in a heavy and hot stone bowl with an over easy egg on top, you'll enjoy sour, salty bites of piping hot kimchi fried rice mixed with rib-eye beef and sliced scallions. Best of all are the crispy pieces of overcooked rice that line the sides and bottom of the bowl.
Similarly, on the barbecue front, skip the basic bulgolgi, which means a mountain of thinly sliced beef dressed in a dull, too-sweet marinade. The daeji bulgolgi is the more interesting route; this plate of spicy pork delivers far more complex flavors and a pleasing amount of heat. Even better is the chok kalbi, a generous serving of barbecued short ribs in a sweet marinade.
With appetizers things get a little less complicated. There are few bad choices, whether you're talking about an order of fried goon mandu, or potstickers served with a vinegary side sauce, or a generous heap of jap chae, made with springy vermicelli noodles, fresh vegetables, and a dusting of nutty sesame seeds. Neither is likely to blow your mind but both should please your entire party.
The don't-miss starter is the one you'll find featured on the wall of the restaurant. (In fact, most of Hodori's best dishes are featured in large photos on the dining room wall. I didn't benefit from this discovery until my third visit but you'd do well to order based on the wall options that look best to you.)
The Wall of House Recommended Dishes features a 90s-era photo of kimchi jun, an eggy pancake made mostly of spicy housemade kimchi and small pieces of pork. The combination of pork-y bits, grease, and sour pickled cabbage will have the triangles of pancake flying off the plate. Oh and don't worry about fighting to eat this dish with the heavy metal Korean-style chopsticks that are provided. I shamelessly ate with my hands and you should probably do that, too.
For those seeking heat, try one of the Soon Tofu Hot Pots, each of which can be made to your desired level of spiciness. The HoDoRi Special Soon Tofu soup is an obvious option; loaded with beef, head-on prawns, clams, and oysters, at a "regular" level of spice this soup satisfied my taste buds without burning them off.
The same can't exactly be said for the kimchi chigae, a sour and spicy kimchi stew from which your only salvation is the pieces of kimchi-doused pork. Tarter than the spicy tofu soup, the heat from this dish can really get to you though the complex flavors make it for a more interesting meal.
The mushroom tofu soup with pork is a good choice for those wanting no heat and plenty of flavor. Even ordered "white," or without heat at all, it's a rich, meaty stew filled with pieces of savory, tender mushrooms and custard-like tofu.
From my experiences, the best meals at Hodori will be the ones shared with a large group of adventurous eaters. Sharing several of the restaurant's more out of the ordinary options can provide the kind of culinary thrill that's not often found in your own backyard. For my own part, I know I'll never forgot my first sea squirt.
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Hodori 1116 South Dobson Road, Mesa 480-668-7979 www.hodoriaz.com
Mon - Thurs: 11 am to 9 pm Fri - Sat: 11 am to 10 pm
kimchi jun $12.95 kimchi bokum bap $9.95 daeji bulgolgi $17.95 HoDoRi Special Soon Tofu $9.95 haemul jungol $34.95