Hot buttered Seoul

I remember being in Manhattan and marveling at the sheer volume of graffiti covering every available surface, and the dirt and garbage cluttering the streets. Sometimes, though, walking into a particularly sooty and graffiti-ridden building, I would enter a hallway or room of astonishing cleanliness and elegance. I guess it was pleasing to know that, although the building’s thick shell bore the stains of the constant assault of humanity and nature, its internal beauty had been preserved.

So it is important not to be put off by Korea House’s location and façade. The place is located in a rundown strip mall on Folsom Boulevard, tucked away in a corner barely visible from the street. The lot is potholed and unkempt, home to the occasional persevering weed and empty tall cans of malt liquor. The paint on the weakly lit sign is fading, the paper covering the windows is torn in spots, and the only real hint that there is life within is a neon Bud sign.

Once inside, however, the dining room is attractive and unassuming, and what really attracts your attention are certain tables that seat eight or more, which have gas burners built into them and overhead exhaust systems. If you’re smart and choose to sit at one of these tables, you will have entered the beautiful world of that great contribution to the interactive eating experience: Korean barbecue.

Barbecue menu items serve two and range in price from roughly $20-$30. A rather laconic sort must have put the menu together, as most entries run something like “BBQ pork,” or “rib” or “guts and tripe.” It doesn’t matter, though; you just pick your meat and they take care of the rest, bringing at various times rice, platters of raw marinated meat, lettuce leaves, marinated crab and about a dozen varieties of pan chan. Pan chan are the various pickled and otherwise seasoned vegetable side dishes that accompany the barbecue. For pan chan we were given the standard kim chi, cubes of daikon covered in chili paste and rice vinegar, shredded daikon marinated in vinegar, daikon marinated in chilies and sesame oil, a spicy soybean paste, chilled wilted spinach with garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce, marinated bean sprouts, and paper-thin chili-laden scallions.

What you do is slap the meat on the grill and, when it’s done (it’s thin), take a lettuce leaf and put some rice on it, then add a piece of meat and whatever types of pan chan you fancy and try to deftly roll it all up like a burrito and eat it out of hand. This is what’s so cool, because you can put together seemingly endless varieties by mixing and matching your meats and pan chan selections.

We shared beef, pork and chicken, and each type had a unique and delicious marinade. In various combinations, hints of rice wine, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and sesame oil permeated the meat, and all were, as well, rather spicy. The various pan chan, too, were fantastic: a perfect balance of salty, spicy and sour. It seems as though a small handful of seasonings are used on all the dishes, but in such a way as to make each dish unique through subtle variations of flavor.

It’s hard to go out for Korean and not do the barbecue thing because it’s so fun and delicious, but also intriguing are some of Korea House’s other specialties—pa jun, a scallion and seafood pancake dish, and the various spicy hot pots with, for example, tofu, egg and pork. If I can ever resist the temptation of the barbecue experience, perhaps I’ll get around to trying them, but I highly recommend that you all seek Korea House out, overlook its rough ex-terior and open yourself to the delights to be had within.