Cafe Reviews

Seoul Survivors

What would you eat if it were your last night on Earth, and you could have just about anything you wanted? That's the hypothetical dilemma I've been mulling since a friend of mine gave me this odd little book titled Last Suppers (Loompanics Unlimited), which is all about the final meals of America's condemned criminals. According to this amusing tome, Ted Bundy downed the standard steak and eggs; John Wayne Gacy consumed Kentucky Fried Chicken, fried shrimp and strawberries; and murderess Barbara Graham, subject of the 1958 film I Want to Live, enjoyed a hot fudge sundae for breakfast before traipsing off to California's gas chamber.

Though I've no doubt that some of the folks I've spanked in this column would like to hang me from the highest palm tree, it's doubtful I'll be walking the green mile any time soon. Still, if I had to choose my last nosh, what would I pick? Well, since the warden's paying, I'd have them bring in a full Korean-style barbecue with everything that accompanies it. Of course, they'd have to wheel in a tabletop gas range, and supply me with several bottles of Korean OB or Japanese Kirin Ichiban beer, because Korean barbecue without suds or soju (Korean rice liquor) is like a Bloody Mary without vodka; i.e., a bloody shame. Normally, the authorities don't allow alcohol or open flames on "the row," but surely they'll make an exception for this bloated bard of the board, especially after all I've done to improve the lot of my fellow foodies in this sprawling metropolis.

And whom shall I pick to cater my final repast, you might wonder? Well, when it comes to Valley-bound Korean cuisine, I could do a lot worse than Glendale's Seoul Jung Restaurant, which has one of the most extensive Korean menus outside Los Angeles' Koreatown. This may be the case because the eatery's chef/owner is none other than John Park, who once worked at one of the most prestigious Korean barbecue joints in L.A., the world-renowned Woo Lae Oak, and who helped open the opulent and similarly named Seoul Jung at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in downtown L.A.

"Seoul Jung" translates as "House of Seoul" in case you're wondering, and Park always wanted to own his own House of Seoul. So about four years ago, he moved his family to Phoenix and opened this restaurant/karaoke parlor on the west side in a commercial cul-de-sac it shares with a furniture store, doctors' offices and a roller skating rink. The neat, humbly appointed establishment, with its pale blue walls, green booths and teak tables sporting built-in gas grills, has since become a favorite of Asian baseball players in the Valley for spring training. Japanese-born Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki is a regular when the Mariners come to town for the Cactus League. And whole Korean baseball teams, such as the Samsung Lions and the Lotte Giants, have signed oversize baseballs in appreciation of meals eaten there.

The entire Park family helps run the place, with John and his wife, Jung, preparing the traditional dishes in the back, and their son Minsoo or their daughter Amy playing host/cashier out front. The waitresses are super-quick and quite amicable, sometimes warning non-Asians away from more exotic Korean fare. For me, anyway, this usually has the opposite effect. So that when I ask for the tripe, the kimchee pancake, or something really out there, like the gulbo-sam (steamed slices of fatty pork, with salted napa cabbage and a salad made of chili paste, rice noodles and raw oysters), and I'm cautioned against it, it makes me even more determined to eat the item in question.

It may not behoove you to borrow this strategy unless you're the adventurous type. The kimchee pancake with kimchee, beef, green onions and peppers may be too spicy for some, but it gives me more satisfaction than does the seafood pancake with its minced shrimp, mussels, clam, crabmeat and oysters. Both are scrumptious, but I'm nearly a kimchee addict, so the former is more to my liking. And if you've got a taste for tripe, you'll adore an order of the mino, or beef tripe, which you grill yourself. These fat, white chunks of steer stomach are far less chewy than you might expect. Lightly browned, and eaten shortly after taken from the flame, they're quite savory. Put me and a platter of these mandible-intensive morsels in the same room, and I promise that only one set of innards shall reign supreme: my own!

However, I admit that the gulbo-sam is a challenging dish for Occidental tum-tums, even for that of yours truly. The neat squares of steamed pork are fine, and the slightly pickled napa is edible, but the portion of rice noodles, reddened with a viscous chili paste and topped with raw oysters, is an acquired taste. I'm not sure I've acquired it, though I put a dent in it, tearing off swaths of napa, wrapping them around pork pieces with some of the chili-oyster mishmash added, and a dollop of the fishy sauce provided.

You pull a similar maneuver when you prepare your own galbi (boneless, marinated short ribs), bulgogi (marinated beef slices), daegi bulgogi (hot and spicy lean pork), or chadol baeki (unmarinated, thin-sliced beef). But wrapping freshly grilled beef, pork or short ribs in a piece of red leaf lettuce, and adding rice, soy paste, and any of a dozen or so delicacies from the array of panchan (Korean tapas) that come with the meat, will satiate the most demanding of palates. Gulbo-sam cannot claim the same.

For fish enthusiasts, I suggest the saba gui, or broiled mackerel, of which Seoul Jung serves two big fillets that are sure to fill you up. But there are numerous more fish dishes, casseroles, hot pots, noodles, and porridges on the bill of fare. It could take a ravenous fresser several months to gnaw through the better part of them, though doing so should be a labor of love. I'd only warn you off the fried dumplings, which are curiously subpar for some reason, as if made from frozen, though I can't be certain that's the case. Otherwise, start eating, people. We've got lots of work to do.

E-mail [email protected] Seoul Jung Restaurant,

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons