These are the times that try men's Seouls.
The Valley's Asian community is growing at a phenomenal rate. Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are springing up as fast as new subdivisions. Unfortunately, fans of Korean food have far fewer eating-out options. You can count all the Korean restaurants in town on the fingers of one hand, and still have enough digits left over to play the trumpet.
Why? Unlike its Asian neighbors, the Land of the Morning Calm doesn't enjoy a great culinary reputation. Korean food lacks Chinese sophistication, Japanese delicacy, Thai complexity and Vietnamese subtlety. Korean fare comes across as more straightforward. And its flavor spectrum doesn't range over quite as broad a scale as other regional cuisines. Just about everything that comes out of a Korean kitchen plays with a four-note combination of essential flavors: soy, ginger, hot pepper and garlic. The result: pungent, vigorously seasoned dishes that, at first contact, can seem to lack variety. But it's a mistake to think that culinary art, like any other art, can't transcend its forms. After all, Shakespeare crafted dazzling poetry into rigid, 14-line sonnets. Blues musicians create magic out of only three chords. There's no reason Korean fare, despite its limitations, can't be just as polished.
At Korean Restaurant, it is. This new place is set in a Papago Plaza storefront, run by an American-husband-and-Korean-wife team operating along the usual division-of-labor lines: He's out front, chatting with customers; she's in the back, cooking.
The dining room has a neat, spare, ethnic look. Paintings of home-country scenes hang from one wall; paneled mirrors line another. Paper-panel screens set off different parts of the space, making the room seem less boxy.
But while you can get through the decor features pretty easily, it takes a lot more effort to make your way through the menu. Korean Restaurant offers by far the most extensive assortment of Korean fare in the Valley. And most of it is very appealing.
For first-timers, the bulky menu and its dozens of unfamiliar dishes may seem a little intimidating. But the affable proprietor is eager to answer questions, check your hot-pepper tolerance levels and make recommendations.
You could start off nibbling the kim bap, a California roll described as "Korean-style sushi." But why come here for such a pedestrian appetizer? Instead, try mandoo: light, pot-sticker-type dumplings, prepared fried or steamed. Either way, make sure you dunk them into the pungent, chile-fired dipping sauce. This ensures that your taste buds will be fully awake for the main-dish assault to follow.
Perhaps my favorite dish here is pajuen, one of 10 "House Specials." It's a huge, starchy pancake about the size of a medium pizza. It's even cut into slices like a pizza. But don't look for cheese, sausage or mushroom toppings. This beauty is distinctively embedded with oysters, shrimp and octopus and green onion, a triumph of taste and texture.
Nakbul jungol is another house special, the most expensive platter here at $29.50. The menu says it feeds "two or more persons." Actually, it will probably feed an army, or at least a brigade. An enormous vessel that looks to be as deep as a kiddy pool is filled to the brim with octopus, sliced beef, noodles and masses of veggies in a chile-spiked broth. You'll be dabbing little beads of perspiration off your forehead after just a few bites, a sure sign of this dish's genuine national character. A bottle of Obi, a flavorful Korean beer, helps you deal with the heat.
Noodle lovers have a menu page devoted to their happiness. Bibim naeng myun is luscious, buckwheat noodles coated with a hard-hitting, spicy sauce. Chap chae, a Korean restaurant noodle staple, offers clear noodles tossed with beef, chicken or pork. Bibim gooksu is less interesting, thin rice noodles in a one-dimensional hot sauce.
If you don't mind low-level risk-taking, consider the dolsot bibim bap. It's a scorchingly hot stoneware pot artistically layered with rice, beef, veggies and egg. Once you've inspected the decorative arrangement, you mix all the ingredients together. My favorite part: scraping the crispy rice off the sides of the bowl.
Every Korean restaurant serves bul-kogi, grilled, sliced barbecued beef. But not every place serves doeji bul-kogi, grilled, sliced barbecued pork. Here, it's tender and tasty, doused in a thick, fiery sauce. Spoon it over rice, and feel the warmth.
If you're itching for the full ethnic experience, make your way over to the "Stir Fried Entrees." There you'll find samsun bokeum, heaps of octopus, squid and shrimp teamed with carrots, snow peas and mushrooms in a typically sharp sauce. You'll need a good set of incisors, however, if our dish was any guide: Some of the squid and octopus turned out to be jaw-breakingly tough. If this is a potential problem, you might consider laying out an extra two bucks for the saeu bokeum. It's the same dish, except the squid and octopus are replaced by additional shrimp.