Kim’s Korean Restaurant **-1/2
We know Chinese, Japanese and Thai food, and have become familiar with many Vietnamese dishes. Yet Korean cooking remains mostly unexplored. According to some food pundits, it’s one of the rising stars of Pacific Rim cuisines.
Kim’s Korean is a pleasant place to take a lesson in kimchee, bulgoki and the like. It’s located in a non-descript storefront on Division, next to an Asian grocery store, and it’s one of those spots I’ve driven by hundreds of times, always meaning to try it. After several recent trips, I’m only sorry I waited so long.
Beyond some of the exotic names, Korean food is surprisingly straightforward. Many dishes are marinated and grilled. Homey soups are a big part of the cuisine. And fluffy white rice accompanies all meals.
Inside Kim’s, the atmosphere is spare, the wallpaper a bit worn. Classic rock plays softly in the background. There are five booths and a long table in the middle. Each table was decorated with silk flowers, a bottle of soy sauce, an ashtray and a box of toothpicks.
A refrigerator hummed in the corner, right next to a case of plastic renditions of some of the menu items. The owner’s wife sat next to the cash register knitting a red, white and blue sweater for her new grandson. That set the tone - this is a Mom and Pop kind of place. Not flashy, but comfortable.
And the food is terrific.
Lunch is a good place to start - with a half-dozen specials at $4.50.
I’ve worked my way through nearly all of them and am most fond of the hot-spicy chicken and the mung bean noodles, which have a sort of slippery consistency. (Gummy worms?) But those transparent noodles are a terrific conduit for the slightly sweet-spicy soy sauce the dish is bathed in.
For a taste of everything, opt for the combination plate. I loved the won tons, which seemed more akin to potstickers. Flavorful meat was enveloped in a thick wrapper and pan-fried.
The combo also includes bulgoki, a traditional dish that is simply lean beef marinated and grilled. This version is stir-fried with carrots and sweet onions in a light soy sauce.
All meals are accompanied by kimchee, the heart of Korean food. These tart pickled veggies are to Korean food what chutney is to Indian cuisine, what salsa is to Mexican - a condiment that is a national passion.
Most Americans - if they’ve even heard of kimchee - think of the fiery chunks of Napa cabbage, but there are hundreds of variations of that. Other versions include radish, cucumber, turnips, even apples.
At Kim’s, kimchee is served on a white plate divided into small compartments. With all the various colors and textures, it reminded me of an artist’s palette. You can be creative and doll up your rice with the crunchy, tangy kimchee. Or, go traditional and eat it with your chopsticks directly off the serving plate, followed by a bite of rice.
I especially enjoyed the delicate shredded radish, dotted with red chilis and the cold, cooked spinach that had a faint sesame flavor. For heat, head directly to the Napa cabbage coated in a chili sauce.
The rest of the menu reads like an advanced course. Some of the more adventurous entrees include all sorts of unfamiliar seafood - barbecued corvina, mackerel pike and flat fish. A squid with hot sauce sounded enticing, as did the curried fried rice.
A nod to the influence of cuisine from nearby countries, you’ll also find udon, sushi, even chow mein on Kim’s menu.
My main beef with Kim’s has to do with the menu, which doesn’t offer any sort of description of the dishes. It can be daunting to neophytes to try and figure out what Kom Tang is (it’s a soup with tripe) or how to pronounce Naeng Myuh, a vegetable dish.
It seems perfectly acceptable to look for clues on what to order on other tables, though. A couple at a neighboring booth eyeballed our kalbi and asked what it was.
“I always get the same thing,” the woman said. “Let’s try something different.”
It was a good choice, too. Kalbi is grilled shortribs, but looked more like a thin pork steak. They were a little tough to wrestle off the bone (without a knife), but the slightly chewy meat was flavorful and moist. The heaping pile was a generous serving for $9.
There are 15 soups on the menu at Kim’s, everything from hearty oxtail, tripe or beef bone to a light broth with crab legs floating in it. (Can you say messy?)
I sampled the hot, spicy soup with beef and didn’t find it too fiery. Its rich beef broth and rice noodles were like something Mom might have cooked up. An egg swirled in in the final stages of cooking gave it extra character, as did the bits of stillcrunchy veggies. The only disappointment was the beef - it was chewy and had a grainy texture.
Service is pretty low-key at Kim’s. The food comes out quickly, but a check never showed up at our table without asking for it. When you’re ready to leave, head up to the cash register.
Aside from the affordable lunch, the rest of the menu is reasonable. The most expensive dish, a seafood soup, ringing in at $10.50. Most of the ala carte selections are between $7 and $9.
Kim’s Korean offers ethnic eating that can either be challenging or comfortingly familiar, depending on how adventurous you want to get.
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