Sacramento, CA 95826
Sacramento’s Seoul Restaurant has it in spades. Its matriarch, dynamic and kindly, says that at 38 years just off the intersection of La Riviera Drive and Folsom Boulevard—unfortunately obscured by a Shell station—her place is the oldest Korean eatery in town. As far as the food goes, there are no signs of infirmity. It’s more of a testament to the claim that age improves everything.
The faux-wood paneling belies Seoul’s physical age, and the array of seashells adorning the interior clearly took a few decades to amass. The menu says “friendly service and atmosphere.” Both true—but add eclectic and inviting.
Starting with voluminous menu options, any kind of Korean culinary adventure can begin here. There are three of the grill-it-yourself tables, such as those at the higher-profile Oz Korean BBQ off Bradshaw Road. There are a couple banquet-sized tables, which may well be sized to accommodate not the number of people but the multiple plates, bowls and platters of the “special” broiled pork, short ribs or chicken dinners the menu claims feed two but appear infinitely more vast. There are plenty of tables for smaller groups—or smaller entrees—separated by delicate screens. It’s cozy and convivial, well-worn, like a favorite recliner.
The matriarch expects diners to come with an appetite and to select their entrees with alacrity. In return, the 10 dishes of banchan arrive swiftly. Among the assortment of made-to-share meal beginners and accompaniments, each the occupant of its own small bowl, are fish cakes, daikon, shredded carrot, a big clump of spicy and tomatoey kimchi, a couple hunks of potato and sprouts in sesame oil.
“Suspicilicous,” pronounces daughter Katie, now a Korean restaurant veteran, as she digs in with her chopsticks.
Another visit, cucumber circles in a sweet and sour red sauce are in the mix, along with pickled broccoli, egg wedges with scallions and sigumchi, one of several namul dishes—marinated, steamed or stir-fried veggies—which, in this case, is spinach.
A never-before-eaten treat is kong ja ban: black beans toughened by boiling then singularly whipsawed with sugar and soy. Clearing eight of 10 banchan dishes earns an atta-boy from the matriarch. The accompanying jjin man doo are emaciated pot stickers that aren’t anywhere near as greasy as their more obese Chinese cousins often are.
How closely the “house special sauce” hews to the basic Korean galbi marinade—largely soy, garlic and sugar—remains the matriarch’s secret. The dal ji bulgogee, usually bulgogi in Western spelling, are thin slices of broiled pork served on a fajitalike platter. Whatever concoction the pork is steeped in, it is sweeter and more pungent than the standard marinade. The thin slices of Katie’s broiled chicken—dak bulgogee—disappear quickly, a compliment to the caliber of the house sauce.
A standout is the dolsot bibimbap. Standard fare in Korea, this rice dish laced with veggies and meat or seafood is served in a sizzling hot stone pot. Cooking it properly requires some finesse, since success depends on crisping the rice on the bottom without allowing the bowl’s heat to char it. Usually, an egg is flopped atop the rice, fried by contact with the stone bowl.
Nothing so garish at Seoul. In its version of hae mul dolsot bibimbap, the egg is mixed into the rice, thin veins of yellow amongst the caramel-colored rice mound. There is no trace of carbon. Interspersed are veggies and bits of seafood, small shrimp in particular. All ingredients are seamlessly interwoven, a filigree of flavors in which no element overwhelms. Never an easy feat.
To jazz up such a creation with hot sauce seems a defilement. However, a bite of bibimbap, combined with some of the pickled banchan dishes, delivers the same yin-yang punch ginger does with sushi.
Sadly, Seoul is the last review to be shared with Katie for some time. She’s off to college in Los Angeles. A delightfully delicious swan song, though. Now, she’ll have a yardstick against which to measure Koreatown’s offerings.