For months, we've been quizzing a Korean neighbor about her cuisine. Her mother's favorite restaurant, Violet said, is Korea House (especially No. 2, New Korea House, with no stairs to climb) because it serves the best panchan (side dishes and condiments) and varies the items nightly, making every meal a new experience. Another family favorite is Brother's, for its charcoal barbecue and wide choice of fish.
Korean eateries are usually informal in decor and ambience, with no reservations accepted. You're seated, typically, in a booth centered on a table with a metal rectangle in the middle, covering a grill for do-it-yourself barbecue. Overhead there's a big noisy vent. The most authentic barbecues use lump charcoal, which lends grilled food a delicious hint of woodsmoke; New Korea House substitutes gas grills, efficient but flavorless.
A peek through New Korea House's front window revealed a table so loaded with goodies that it lured us right in. As soon as we sat down, nearly a dozen panchan appeared. The standouts included house-pickled Chinese cabbage (instead of store-bought head cabbage kimchee). Potato and scallion minipancakes came with spicy-salty-sweet sauce, while sparkling-fresh bean sprouts were dressed with exceptionally flavorful sesame oil.
Most Korean restaurants will gladly grill your food in the kitchen -- and frankly, their cooks are apt to do a better job of it than you will. You can then use your table's grill cap as a place to park some of your multitude of side dishes and condiments. These are the panchan, numerically referred to as "chop," with family dinners usually being three-chop, informal celebrations running seven- or nine-chop, and a special occasion -- say, a wedding dinner -- offering at least a dozen panchan, for a 12-chop feast. One type of panchan you're sure to encounter is Korea's most famous (or infamous) specialty, kimchee, a brilliant response to the problem of nourishment during the country's notoriously nasty winters. The pickled vegetables (not just cabbage, but radishes, turnips, cucumbers, eggplant, and so on) are inflamed with chili peppers and garlic, heady vitamin-blasts for the snow season.
Among classic Korean table-condiments is a trio of hot sauces. One, served in large quantities, looks like -- and is -- "the ketchup of Korea," a lightly sweetened chili pepper puree. Another, mainly used to sauce grilled meats, is a small pool of thick dark-orange paste, consisting of some of the ketchup mixed with a larger amount of fermented soybean jam. Similar to Chinese fermented tofu cheese, the jam actually tastes much like Parmesan. (The soup we had at New Korea House, kang daeng jang ($9), is a Korean favorite, with a wonderfully complex flavor from clams, beef, tofu, prawns, octopus, dried shrimp, and vegetables in a light broth richly flavored with this fermented soy jam.) Finally, a hotter sauce has red chili flakes, sesame seeds, and scallions in a soy and sesame oil mixture.
Because there are no clear-cut courses in a classic Korean meal, menus can be puzzling -- a section titled "barbecue" may dissolve after a half-dozen grilled choices into a miscellany of stir-fries. You'll also see spelling variations because the words are transliterated by phonic guesswork: In three successive eateries our rice bowl was filled with bop, bap, and bab. Translations may be equally elusive: At Korea House, "tripe" means either "tripe" or "chitlins" while at Brother's, one "bone soup" has tripe, but the one listed just below it sports beef shreds. Confused? Don't be embarrassed to ask your server.
Our waitress showed us how to cook the paper-thin slices of marinated rib-eye steak that constitute bulkoki ($19 with lettuce and a side of airy batter-fried fish, or $14 for just meat). As the salty-sweet beef grows crisp-edged, you smear a little fermented soy on a lettuce leaf, add condiments of choice (for instance, bean sprouts and daikon) and a little rice, lay on a slice of beef, and roll it up to chomp it down.
Korean meat-eating isn't confined to steak and ribs. Our chitlin-loving guest, a veteran Korean food-fan, suggested gop chang gui ($14), beef intestines blanched and stuffed with seasoned rice. They arrived in a spicy marinade, and, once crisped on the grill, proved a little sweet, a little funky, and a little chewy, their overall flavor amazingly similar to Cajun boudin.
Bibimbop ($9) is a deluxe version of my neighbor's daily fare -- a casserole of rice, meat, vegetables, and scallion greens with a sunny side up egg plopped on top. You can have it served in a hot black-iron casserole, with rice included, or in a regular bowl to which you add rice from your own rice bowl. You dress it with an ample measure of the "ketchup" and stir vigorously to break up the egg and distribute the rice. It was surprisingly light-textured and complex and amazingly delicious -- murmurs of "Ooh, I could live on this" ran right around our table.
For beverages, you have your choice of beer, or saki, or Korean tea made with roasted rice husks. And when you're done, here's your bill, and out you go -- Koreans don't linger after dinner.
A few nights later we moved on to Brother's Restaurant, which I always think of as "Seoul Brother's Barbecue" since that's its specialty. It too serves guests a 12-chop panchan. The kimchees (cabbage, sweet turnip) are store-bought but good. Better yet were pickled green kelp, firm and satiny in sesame oil, crunchy dried anchovies in hot sauce, crisp pickled cucumber strewn with sesame seeds and coarse salt, and puffs of flash-fried zucchini melting inside a golden batter. Most items ran saltier than their Korea House counterparts.
At Brother's, you don't get to cook on your charcoal grill unless you order doubles of one item. We split our pair, so the kitchen ably did our grilling. Our fat kingfish ($13) emerged with moist flesh and crisp, salty skin. Kalbi ($13), accordion-cut marinated short ribs, were crisp-edged, smoky, salty, and touched with sweetness, and came with lettuce for wrapping. The dish here that inspired our "I could live on this" sighs was pa-jun ($11). Described on the menu as "pan-fried peper and green onion with beef," it's a huge rice-batter pancake stuffed with scallions, bits of meat, and flecks of hot, uh, peper. The exterior had the airy brittleness of tempura, while the inside was custardy and savory-sweet.
While Koreans don't do dessert, at Brother's your meal ends with a chilled drink of a few grains of rice in a sugar syrup, lent an odd earthiness by roast barley powder. After all the powerhouse flavors, it's a perfect exotic sweet ending.
Korea House/New Korea House
1620 and 1640 Post (at Webster), 563-1388/931-7834. Open Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., weekends to midnight. Reservations not accepted. New Korea House is wheelchair accessible, Korea House is not. Parking: street parking near-impossible; Peace Plaza garage across the street. Muni: 2, 3, 4, 38. Sound level: moderate.
4128 Geary (at Sixth Avenue), 387-7991. Open daily 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Reservations not accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: street parking fairly difficult but possible. Muni: 2, 4, 38, 44. Sound level: a little loud.