A place of meat heaven
Korea House Restaurant
Sacramento, CA 95827
When you have a husband who spent two years living in South Korea doing a tour with NATO, it’s a very good thing if you’ve—even only recently—relocated near the “Korean Mile” that is Folsom Boulevard between Watt Avenue and Bradshaw Road.
And so, intimidated by the area’s wide selection of Korean restaurants, I asked him to help me uncover some real Korean home cooking.
For this, he took some friends and me to Korea House Restaurant, which resides in a run-down strip mall. Inside, we chose a table with a gas grill in the center, so we could experience some authentic Korean barbeque.
Our server was a kind and very patient woman who answered our avalanche of questions about the menu. Not only did she help us identify every dish we ordered, she went into how each ingredient was prepared and its role in Korean cuisine and culture.
We started with a Korean-style seafood pancake called haemul pajeon. It’s listed as an appetizer, but at the size of a medium pizza, it could generously feed two people happily. Not that it survived the carnage of our hungry table. Chewy on the inside, crispy on the outside, bulging with calamari and shrimp, and served with a seasoned soy sauce, it was quickly demolished in a scene that probably horrified other guests.
After that, the naengguk arrived. “Naengguk” means “cold soup,” and it’s listed on the menu as “Cold Soup with Vegetables and Cooked Pork.” What that translates to is a pleasant summer soup that, during a Sacramento summer, proves to be more than welcome. Flat barges of daikon and cucumber drift alongside well-done beef in a sweet, earthy broth. The soup’s best features are its chewy, angel-hair-thin buckwheat noodles that are very unlike soba. The soup also comes with vinegar and spicy mustard, if you want it, and a pair of scissors. The dish is fine enough, but don’t expect it to move the earth.
We also tried a spicy soup with soft tofu—a brackish specimen literally served bubbling hot in a stone bowl. From the seething red broth, you might expect it to cut you pretty bad, but rather, it delivers just a glowing ember burn. It features shrimp, mushrooms, and delicate globs of silken tofu. There was disagreement at the table, as I found it lacking in punch, whereas everyone else appreciated its subtlety of the spice.
Probably the most impressive event at any Korean restaurant is the banchan. Banchan is the parade of side dishes that accompany a meal. Expect anywhere from six to 12, depending on the restaurant. Here, these include sweet and savory fish cakes, a variety of kimchis, and fresh bean sprouts. The kimchi radish was beyond exquisite: crunchy, lightly peppery, a hint sour and terribly addictive.
To finish, we, of course, turned to the grill sitting in the middle of the table. Some beef galbi—or simply, thinly sliced beef—was brought to the table along with some coarsely cut pieces of raw garlic and slices of jalapeño. They were placed onto a shimmering hot metal plate, and the aroma of beef and garlic caramelizing took us to a place of meat heaven.
Once cooked, the beef (or pork or chicken), garlic and jalapeño are plucked from the cooking plate and tucked into a leaf of lettuce in a spring-roll fashion. The inside is then smothered with a chili-bean paste that really should knock Sriracha off its pedestal. This sauce offers more depth of flavor—it’s sweeter, more pungent and smokier. The entire thing is divine in taste and nuclear hot.
In the end, we left full and educated with a new appreciation for Korean cuisine. It takes a bit of learning, and perhaps simply more exposure, to appreciate its approach to food, which is a quieter approach than what’s generally expected from other Asian cuisines that are often a bit punchier and forward with flavor. This is a fine place to start.