Korean restaurants offer a similar experience by including panchan, a spread of appetizers and side dishes, in the price of the entrees. These normally start arriving as soon as you place your order, providing a nice bit of immediate gratification. Should you run out of any of the items during the meal, the server should offer refills and if they don't, it's proper etiquette to ask.
You'll find some of the best panchan in San Francisco at Han Il Kwan, the cleanest and most inviting of the Richmond District's numerous "wooden charcoal barbecue" joints. The somewhat sterile interior is enlivened by bright red counters and tabletops, and much of the seating is in comfy, cozy, semiprivate booths. There are also some big round tables that can comfortably accommodate parties of eight or more. It was quiet on all my visits, though I can't say whether that's the case when one of the busloads of Korean tourists that frequent the place occupies the private rooms.
What you get in your panchan will vary with the season and the kitchen's whim, but for sure there will be a couple of varieties of kimchee, house-made Korean-style pickles made by fermenting raw vegetables with salt, garlic, chilis, and sometimes other flavorings. On one visit we had Napa-cabbage kimchee that was so fresh it had a slight fizz to it, and some very spicy, crunchy cubes of daikon radish. You'll also get simple salad-type dishes of fresh raw vegetables, such as mung bean sprouts in a delicate rice vinegar marinade, diced cucumbers in a hot-pepper dressing, or citrusy julienned Korean radish.
An exceptionally good item at Han Il Kwan is the house-made fish cake, which you might easily mistake for fried tofu in a fish sauce. The mildly fishy flavor of the cakes is accented by a slightly sweet, oniony sauce. OK, that description doesn't sound all that inviting, but most people seem to find the cakes addictive. A more extreme version of the same combination is delivered with sweet, salty, chewy dried anchovies, which go very well with beer the Korean answer to Beer Nuts. Less challenging to the American palate was squid simply marinated with cucumber and chilis.
Most Korean restaurants in these parts serve only cold panchan, but Han Il Kwan sometimes busts out a few hot items. At one meal we got hot fried mung bean cakes, delicious crunchy fritters with a soft center and a tempura-style dipping sauce, and a dish of thin slices of firm tofu, grilled and served with a spicy sauce of soy, chilis, and scallions. Both were small portions of items on the regular menu. I'm not sure why we got these extra goodies it might be because we ordered two dishes per person, or because, as the server remarked with some surprise, we ordered like Koreans.
And then there are the "what the heck is that" dishes. This is less of a problem at Han Il Kwan than some other places, where I've had things that smelled like dry cleaning or tasted like camphor. However, there was one stumper: noodle-ish strips of soft, cold, flavorless white gelatin in a hot, spicy sesame dressing that would make cardboard edible. I'm guessing this was made from mung beans.
Just to be perfectly clear: The foregoing 11 dishes were the panchan for one dinner for two people. Now on to what we actually ordered from the menu.
Korean meals traditionally started with a separate soup course, though in modern times it's usually served with the rest of the dishes. A hot pot described as "crab in black bean paste with vegetables" turned out to have a rich, crabby broth seasoned with fresh and dry chili peppers, garlic, and no discernable hint of black bean. The meat of the little fist-sized crabs themselves was dry and overcooked, having given all its goodness to the pot, where luckily it was absorbed by unctuous slices of tofu and long-simmered daikon and zucchini. This scrumptious dish could easily pass for Cajun.
Like most Korean restaurants in San Francisco, Han Il Kwan has fan hoods coming down from the ceiling to draw off the smoke from grilling meat or seafood at the table. You can use the built-in gas grill, but for better results request charcoal (call ahead so that they can start the fire). The pork marinated in spicy sauce was the tastiest and most interesting of the meats we tried. The beef short ribs (kal bi) didn't have as rich a sauce, and "sliced bacon" was just bland unmarinated fatty pork. These dishes come with soup, so the prices are a few bucks higher than for the other dishes. If you're new to Korean food or are on a budget, consider the set menus with a couple of grilled meats and five other dishes, plus panchan.
A more interesting choice than the grilled items is bi bim bap, rice topped with beef, vegetables, and a raw egg, served in a sizzling-hot stoneware bowl that gives the rice a crispy crust. An unidentifiable dried green herb gave this homey dish a unique earthy aroma. The bowl holds its heat so long that you can keep stirring up the rice to make more crust. Though it's not on the menu, there's also a vegetarian version, dol sot bap. Another great meatless dish is kimchee bean cake, a thin, pan-fried frittata made from a batter of tofu and eggs filled with a variety of finely chopped pickled vegetables even non-vegetarians will crave this.
Squid tempura wasn't quite what we expected: Each piece was about 6 inches long and half an inch wide. That squid must have weighed 10 pounds! But no matter, the batter was light, the meat was tender and tasty, and the dipping sauce was not overly sweet. Broiled mackerel was simple but good, crisp on the outside and moist inside.
Hot barley "tea," made by simmering whole grains in water for an hour or so, comes free with the meal, as does a similar rice drink, slightly sweetened and dotted with toasted pine nuts, which serves as dessert. (There are no sweets on the menu.) Another drink well worth trying is soju, a distilled spirit made from rice, barley, and sweet potato. It tastes like vodka but has only about half the alcohol, so you can sip a few shots without getting totally hammered. Soju's way too easy to drink, so I strongly recommend getting a bottle of the excellent Korean beer as well.
Feeling logy from the annual overdose of eggnog, cookies, and candy? With its abundance of vegetables, wide choice of low-fat dishes, and light hand with rich ingredients, a Korean feast at Han Il Kwan makes a good antidote.