Korean food has been slow to garner a following in this town where Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and sushi joints dominate the pan-Asian culinary landscape. Some cite the cuisine's bent toward sour and tart flavors and exotic ingredients. As anyone who has sampled kimchi can attest, the extraordinarily pungent staple condiment tends to polarize palates ' people either love it or hate it. But the primary reason remains ignorance of the country's cooking; most diners favor familiarity over the unknown.
In actuality, the soups, stews, noodles and barbecue dishes comprising Korean fare are in line with those from other countries in the Orient, and just as accessible thanks to the great variety; and variety is precisely what makes Korean Kitchen a bona fide draw.
You'll start with no fewer than seven side dishes, or panchan, to enjoy as a pre-meal peck: Fiery kimchi is bestowed along with such appetizing small plates as seasoned potato salad, crunchy pickled turnips and pickled lettuce. Seaweed, radish and eggplant round out the offerings, each embracing the spectrum of flavors and textures.
With an irresistible essence of sesame, it's no wonder the pepper japchae ($14.99) is a special-occasion and holiday fave in Korea. The dish of glass noodles stir-fried with shredded beef and assorted veggies tossed in a garlicky soy sauce was a cautious incursion into the menu, while beef mandoo ($9.99) proved a tad more diverse. The delicate handmade dumplings, steamed with cabbage and onion, arrived with a salty soy-based dipping sauce that vanished quickly. But what seemed at first like an ordinary starter provided numerous nibbles of comfort.
Stews are a mainstay for the curious, veering more toward the exotic. Beware the bones in the nose-running broth of the monkfish stew ($14.99). The murky liquid is spiked with an astringent bite, but the skeletal spikes of the meaty fish are what make the dish an adventure to eat. There's no defusing the kimchi, tofu and jalapeños ($9.99) reposing in a fiery red stew ' the item is hot enough to warrant a bomb icon on the menu. (Given the stew's tendency to cause head-scratching, a picture of Kim Jong Il may have been more apropos.)
Especially popular are the famous bibimbap ' rice dishes cooked in hot stone bowls. The cooking method results in a bottom layer of rice that's enjoyably crisp and crunchy. A memorable version made with beef short ribs ($13.99) comes with egg, zucchini, carrots, sprouts and string beans, and the idea is to squirt a little kochujang (spicy chili paste) into the sizzling concoction, then mix it all up. The fatty chunks of meat, snappy rice and colorful veggies made it the darling of our plate-cluttered table.
Burners located on some of the tables allow traditionalists to chef up their own DIY barbecue (exhaust hoods ensure a smoke-free experience). Those preferring some work-free 'cue can opt for the beef bulgogi ($12.99), grilled slices of beef marinated in a sweet garlic-soy sauce and served with wild rice. The meat was undoubtedly juicy, but the sugary sauce won't please all palates. Cooked desserts are nonexistent, but every table gets a plate of watermelon slices to shower the tongue with cooling bursts of sweetness.
Korean Kitchen's exterior gives an impression of rickety tables and dubious fare, but the prevailing high standards make this unassuming family-run spot top-notch. The staff may not be fluent in English, but when it comes to their alluring dishes and accommodating service, there is no language barrier.