Pine Tree House9205-D Folsom Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95826
As we turned into the outer Folsom Boulevard strip mall to go to a Korean restaurant I’d heard about online, I felt a distinct sense of déjà vu. The particular corner placement of the building, the squat square shape, the vast parking lot—it all seemed familiar, somehow, but the name Pine Tree House was most definitely not. Still, we were sure we’d been there before, but when I asked the server if it had been another restaurant before, I just got a smile and a repetition of the name, “Pine Tree House.” Either English-language skills were not Pine Tree House’s specialty, or I was just unlucky with who I asked. Anyway, when I got home, the Internet revealed that I had reviewed a restaurant at that address before, Hanbat Gom Tang, a couple of years back.
This was, in fact, a different place (though, of course, I can’t speak Korean and thus can’t say for sure that Pine Tree House is not a translation of the old name). But there were shiny, Pine Tree House banners on the walls, though otherwise the setting was similar—wood booths, a few pictures on the walls, and not much else besides a TV perched high in one corner. There seems to be a moderate health-food angle at Pine Tree House, however; one of the “summer specials” listed on the table (they are, perhaps, a touch behind on the change of seasons) described a brothy chicken soup with the bird’s cavity stuffed with rice and ginseng. I was intrigued, but not quite enough to forgo that Korean food favorite of super-rich beef.
We started out with banchan: tons of little plates—sweetish cubes of potato; earthy, pungent kimchi; a pleasantly bland custard; a fermented-tasting and pleasant fish dish and folded-up blackish seasoned sesame leaves with an elusive, saline and nutty flavor (the ever-handy Internet once again informs me that these are shiso leaves, but usually translated from Korean as sesame. Thanks, Internet!). The latter we were just eating (and enjoying) plain, like dumb novices, until the server rushed over to show us that we were supposed to roll them around the rice. Oops. Well, they were good either way, honestly.
We practically could have made a meal of all these alone, but we’d ordered a big appetizer: a seafood pancake, with all kinds of underwater creatures (oysters, squid, some other less identifiable ones) mixed into a big, thick, griddle-marked yellowish rectangle, crisp and lacy at the edges and with a pleasing doughiness in the middle. (In texture, it was a bit reminiscent of Vietnamese bánh xèo.) We were happily (again) eating it plain, until the server came over with the ponzu.
Our table was entirely full of food at this point, and our main dishes had yet to arrive, so when they did we had to jigger things to make room—a worthwhile endeavor. The L.A. galbi, cross-cut beef short ribs with a sugary, caramelized soy-sesame oil marinade, were sizzling with crisped, rich fat, chewy with connective tissue and full of gristle around the bone—great for gnawing, as long as you have plenty of napkins on hand.
I was intrigued by the rather unusual bulgogi, presented in a very saucy, sweet marinade. The thin-cut beef took on a chewy, almost gnarled texture as it cooked up, contrasting with crunchy slices of onion and the slippery, sauce-soaked glass noodles. At first it looked like an absolutely gigantic portion of meat, but we were rather relieved to see that it was on a grooved iron plate with a convex center, shaped like an upside-down bowl; the meat covered it, so it wasn’t as outrageously much as feared. Still, portions were big.
We ended up with purple rice, thanks to our server, who asked, “White or brown?” And when we said white, said, “No. Brown better.” Well, it was purple, because of the beans (maybe she said, “White or bean?”) and yes, it was better than white rice; the beans lent it not just its pretty, if slightly startling, amethyst tint, but also an earthy, almost nutty flavor. We also had a cold dubu bibimbap, a nice light dish that was very fresh, with its lettuce and shredded vegetables and sesame-imbued soft tofu. Unfortunately, this was another occasion for me to be chided by the server: I wasn’t adding enough of the hot rice, or mixing it up enough, or adding enough chili sauce. I agreed with her on the last point (the chili sauce was not very flavorful), but I kind of liked the individual components. But anyway, so what if it’s not a have-it-your-way kind of place? Honestly, with some of the unfamiliar foods, we needed a little guidance. If you go to Pine Tree House, therefore, be prepared to be schooled a little—but also be prepared to find some very toothsome kimchi and beef.