Guided tour

Hanbat Gom Tang

9205 Folsom Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95826

When trying an unfamiliar cuisine, it can be helpful to have a guide with you. I’ve had Korean food before, but mostly the American-friendly favorites: galbi (grilled beef, specifically short ribs), bulgogi (more grilled beef), bibimbap (sizzling rice bowl). They’re all delicious, but when a colleague of my husband’s who is of Korean extraction offered to take me to a place, where she loves the cold noodles and they serve beef in creamy broth and steamed ox knee meat (are you sensing a theme with the beef here?), I was all over it.

Hanbat Gom Tang is named for its specialty: gomtang, a soup of beef in what they call creamy broth, though I don’t think there’s actually any dairy involved and, thanks to its thinness, might better be described as milky. We speculated over dinner about what might be clouding the exceptionally bland broth and came to the conclusion that it could be soaked rice. That blandness, by the way, is intentional. You get your plain broth with beef and soft, white noodles and it is up to you to load it up with chili paste and vinegar to add flavor.

Even with a jar of red-hot-looking chili paste at my disposal, I never got it to a point where it was all that flavorful. Maybe it would have helped if I had ordered the version with pork intestines and what our friend called “other goodies.” Despite my aversion to eating intestines—sorry if that shatters my adventurous-foodie image, but I really can’t hack it—I asked if that was what she recommended. She shuddered, and I ordered the version with beef only, though I was kind of interested in the blood sausage and I would definitely go back to try an oxtail version.

The soup was the very least of what we ordered, though. First of all, there is the huge variety of little pickled things that comes out first. Called banchan, these include everything from spinach (or some other greens—hard to tell) with a nutty-tangy flavor to pickled daikon to traditional kimchi. My favorite was the crunchy yet delicate Napa cabbage. Nearly all of it was coated in fire-engine-red chili until it looked absolutely incendiary, yet none of it provided four-alarm heat.

We also started with a bottle of bek se ju, a sweetish rice wine flavored with herbs, which went nicely with the food. The restaurant also offers beer and other types of Korean drinks, such as the stronger soju.

Even before we got most of our dishes, our table was jam-packed with food, thanks to the banchan. But we had more ready to arrive. Our friend’s husband ordered a thick stew or hot pot of soft tofu in a bright-red yet subtle chili sauce with lots of mixed seafood—my favorite of the less-common dishes we tried. I also liked our friend’s cold noodles—the almost wiry, very firm yet extraordinarily thin Korean type—in a spicy dressing with sliced beef and vegetables.

The bibimbap we got was really sizzling and it developed that crust on the underside of the rice that is so tooth-stickingly crunchy, toasty and delicious. I found the mushroom flavor of it all a little overwhelming by comparison to the understated beefiness, but it was a comforting, nice bowl.

Another dish was squid with vegetables, tossed with a spicy chili sauce (another theme). The squid, in thick pieces with a kind of waffle-cut pattern of scoring to keep it tender, was a little bit tough, or maybe just chewy. I liked the flavor of the sauce, which was more astringent than the otherwise rather similar hot pot.

The most accessible dish we had was bulgogi (here spelled bulgoki—as our friend pointed out, all the menus seem to have a different style of transliteration): sliced beef grilled with a sweet, soy-ish barbecue sauce. The beef was chewy, a little fatty (in a good way) and everyone at the table vied for his or her fair share of the slices, gnawing every last bit off the cross-cut bone. The meal was rounded out with little steel bowls of rice, each with a little lid. I wished we had all had plates for easier sharing, but I don’t know where on the table—littered as it was with bowls of pickles, little cups of bek se ju and so on—they would have gone.

Hanbat Gom Tang is a long ways out Folsom Boulevard, as so many of the Korean restaurants are, in the same shopping center with the very worthy Cho Dang Tofu House. The latter specializes in tofu soups; Hanbat has as its specialty the bland beefy soup for which it’s named, but I liked the other offerings, in a broad variety of styles, better. If you’re looking for a long menu to explore—or if you want to be able to watch Korean soap operas set in the medieval period on the TV in the corner—it’s worth a visit. If you go, though, I recommend finding a guide of your own.