Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Seoul BBQ & Sushi: Thanks, I needed that!

Not a cold slap in the face per the old aftershave ads so much as a genial nudge toward a better outlook, followed by a feast of comforts.

La madre was visiting from Oklahoma, where Korean food is hard to come by, so we wanted to whisk her off to Aurora for a fix; I needed one, too, as life has been one rough stretch of pavement lately. But whisking became dragging as the traffic averaged 6 inches per hour; 40 min. went by before we were in the parking lot of our destination—which, as it turned out, was closed. We’d attempted to hit Beast + Bottle the night before only to find it darkened on a Monday, & wound up with a mad-disappointing alternative (more on that anon); with our bellies growling, our patience thinning, & our guards already up, we made a quickie call to try Seoul BBQ & Sushi—of which I’d long heard praise, but which had always seemed so dauntingly packed.

Sure enough, there was a 10-15 min. for a table—with grill or without, I was told. I put in my name & then realized I hadn’t specified which we preferred, so I returned to ask the hostess for a grilltop; somehow, in a minute flat, the wait had ballooned to 30-40 min. The Director had been looking forward to a meatfest, so I grumbled a bit before acquiesing to whatever came first. Not a moment later, however, she grabbed some menus & led us to a table—with a grill. (Her English was iffy & my Korean is nil, so I chalked it up to miscommunication.) Finally…

Well, almost. Upon noticing that the barbecue platters were for 2 or more people, I’d about had it. Moms doesn’t eat red meat, & I wasn’t in the mood for it, so I found myself growing totally petulant. But lo! The owner must have noticed my sourpuss, because suddenly he was at our side, crowing in wonderful broken English that theirs was the best barbecue in town, & since we were 1st timers, he’d tell the waitress to allow a single order. Relief, gratitude & sheepishness washed over me, followed by a quick buzz thanks to a hefty pour of wine, which I’d describe as “cheap, but in my tummy, where it belongs.” Thus the banquet ensued.

First, the pan chan (or banchan if you prefer): 14 dishes total, which is rather a lot in my experience. Many of them were ubiquitous, including kimchi of various sorts, sliced omelet, steamed broccoli in chili sauce, bean sprouts whole & in starch-jelly cubes, & macaroni salad (yes, that’s oddly typical, perhaps by way of Hawaii); others were less common, like cold marinated eggplant, tiny stir-fried dried shrimp & shredded octopus, disks of fried whitefish & zucchini. Nothing mind-blowing, just all so welcome. Like a basket of warm bread or a bowl of mixed nuts or even the stale cheese puffs they bring you with your aperitivo at any old streetside café in Italy, such freebies are always such a soul-soothing treat, a symbol of the idea that hospitality is more than a transaction, & you are more than a mouth connected to a wallet (or vice versa, for that matter).

As for that fought-for meat:

the Director stuck with the sweet-soy-marinated cow classics, namely thin-sliced bulgogi & galbi, or short ribs. Admittedly, the thing about DIY prep is that you’re not necessarily sure whether any problems stem from the quality of the raw material, the way it was cut, or the way you cooked it. In this case, the bulgogi was mouthwatering, but the ribs were a bit tough.

And let’s say that my naeng myun with chopped raw fish was, oh, homestyle. I’ve had many spare, elegant versions of this ultra-vinegary, beef-broth-based, chilled noodle (usually buckwheat or sweet potato) soup—containing, for instance, sliced Asian pear, dollops of roe, julienned raw veggies, fresh herbs & so on (as well as, often, paper-thin slices of beef). This ginormous bowl was just a hornet’s nest of threads, tons of sweet (& I mean sweet) chili sauce, chunks of ice, fishbones, & I don’t know what all. Carefully done it was not; so far, I thought, Silla was winning 2-0 as far as precision goes. Still, the noodles were, shockingly, the right texture, & the flavors were charmingly neon; I slurped plenty.

Besides, mom’s huge, salted & broiled mackerel filet was simple, flaky, golden, & fine,

& really, everything was simple & fine. Our K-pop-pretty server was cheerfully there when we needed her, & brought cups of sikhye with the bill. Our hunger & crankiness was long gone. The sounds of other satisfied guests swirled around us in the bright-lit dining room. And the ride home would be a calm breeze. Some days you can’t ask for more.

Seoul BBQ on Urbanspoon

Koreatown Capers: Cafe Sky, Dah Won Rice Cake, Paris Baguette

As hair-pullingly stressful at times as the 3 months I spent last fall working on the upcoming Food Lover’s Guide to Denver/Boulder got, the jaunts I took to the de facto Koreatown (& everything-else-town) that is Aurora never ceased to rejuvenate me—never failed to be bright spots, to remind me why I became a food writer in the 1st place. Without pooh-poohing the job’s posher perks—& I’ve done my fair share of swanning around glamorous soirées where foie gras & caviar are mine for the digging in—the academic in me has always been far more excited by opportunities to explore & research & discover & learn on the down low. And much as I love those places where everybody knows my name & feeds me silly, the anthrophobe in me (see: the academic in me) really loves the ones where nobody does—& still feeds me silly.

This afternoon, the Director & I met our champion-eater pal Joe N. for lunch at a place that, it turned out, was closed for lunch, so wound up instead at nearby Cafe Sky, a borderline fast-food Korean joint but with table service & booze. (Oh, what a kick the adorable middle-aged gent who appears to run the place got out of my ordering a bottle of soju. “You’ve never had?” he asked incredulously, implying that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. “I’ve had,” I assured him. He laughed.)

We started with my beloved ddeokbokki, glutinous-rice sticks stirfried in a spicy-sweet gochujang-based sauce. I can’t entirely explain my fondness for these sticky, chewy, starchy cylinders, except to say that they’re the barely-savory answer to Sunkist Fruit Gems, or maybe edible Play-Doh. Here, the ratio of cabbage to rice cake was a bit too high for my taste, but the apparently somewhat common addition of a hard-boiled egg, which we chopped up & mixed in, proved fascinating.

I got lots more rice cake, sliced this time, in a bowl of dukmandu guk, a light, savory, brothy soup also chock-full of bits of scrambled egg, scallions, mushrooms, & seaweed, plus a little sliced beef & maybe 4 or 5 pork dumplings. I wouldn’t bet an enormous amount of dough on the possibility that the latter were homemade—they seemed too uniform in construction for that—but either way, they were tender & tasty enough, & the contents of the bowl went down easy as a whole.

The Director’s bibimbap

& Joe’s jap chae (glass noodles)

were fine; not memorable, but certainly worth their rock-bottom prices.

Cafe Sky on Urbanspoon

***

As long as we were in the neighborhood, I had to hit up 2 adjacent strip-mall holes in the wall I came to adore last fall—Dah Won Rice Cake & Paris Baguette, likewise owned by the sweetest folks—not to wax reverse racist, but are Koreans just nicer & better adjusted than the rest of us?

The former, as the name indicates, is entirely devoted to glutinous-rice products of all types, colors & flavors. I’m a fan especially of the mochi-like morsels covered in green-bean powder for their subtle salty-sweet chew &, now, of this,

which is reminiscent of angel-food cake in texture, albeit stickier—& much less sweet than you might expect, layered with mango & coated in red-bean powder. In fact it’s not what I’d call sweet at all—just airily refreshing.

The latter, despite the name, is not a traditional French boulangerie; I’ve never even caught sight of the eponymous loaves on the tiny retail floor. Instead the mom & pop bakers turn out various cookies, cake by the slice &, especially, stuffed buns both savory & sweet. The vegetable bun (top), for instance, contains chopped cooked egg, onion, cabbage & peppers; the version at bottom is filled with a dense, marzipan-like sweet-potato paste.

Encased in fried sweet rolls not unlike doughnuts, they’re, in a word, killer.

Dah Won Rice Cake on Urbanspoon

Paris Baguette on Urbanspoon

Silla: A He-Said, She-Said Review with Denver on a Spit

I helped give birth to twins! Denver on a Spit & I foisted so much food on Mrs. Denver on a Spit at Silla a couple of weeks ago that I think it pushed her (or rather them) over the edge, & the next time I heard from him 2 days later, they’d already been at the hospital for 23 hours. (The Director did not for his part drop a tot, though he was so full we thought for a while he might. The poor thing just does not have the stomach for my line of work.)

In between feedings, the new dad found some time to back & forth with me on our experience (as we did with Red Tango); his answers to my questions appear here, while my response to his queries—wherein I wax ecstatic about naeng myun (below right), among other things—are here.

Denveater: Silla was quite the hot spot on Friday night…Describe the setting.
Denver on a Spit: Bustling. Korean. I haven’t been to an overwhelming number of Korean BBQ places in Denver but Silla is always packed with Korean familes & couples, young & old. I think we got the last open table & it never slowed down. The dining room is nothing fancy: well-lit, sparsely decorated, but at the same time with all the people in there it is warm, cozy and inviting.

D: What do you like most about Korean cuisine in general?
DOAS: I love the bold flavors along with the varying temperatures & textures of the food. And of course as far as Korean BBQ goes, I love when my meat cooks before my eyes. Possibly the best thing, however, is the fact that there never seems to be enough room on the table for all the food.


No kidding.

D: Why are you a fan of Silla in particular—what do you consider its strengths?
DOAS: The BBQ is ridiciously tender & flavorful. I think we all use the term “melt-in-your-mouth” too much but that galbi—the marinated short ribs—are just that. And I’m glad we all four felt comfortable enough with each other to gnaw on his or her respective bone gristle, because that is likely the best part. Hope I didn’t grunt too loud at any point.

Also the care & quality of execution that go into the numerous ban chan—this is one of the things that makes Silla shine. [They're mostly very simple—pickled seaweed & eggplant, cabbage & daikon kimchi, stirfried pea stems & broccoli & tofu skin, potato salad, & other odds & ends—&, as such, cooling, soothing & addictive.—D.]

And the button. How many restaurants have a button that summons your waiter? And where your waiter expects you to use it & comes smiling to your table after you do? Granted it didn’t always work in the quickest fashion, but still, you have to admire the thought. [Yes, I bet the button mainly serves as a calming placebo for impatient diners—for all we could tell from the servers' comings & goings, the thing didn't even work. But if they generally do, I can think of several places around here I'd want to install them in.—D.]

D: If you count all 12 pan (or ban) chan, we shared 16 dishes (excluding the rice and green salad). What were your five favorite bites, however large or small?
DOAS: There was a salad? [Heh—not only was there a simple green salad (just visible at the far-right edge of the photo above), you were the only one who actually ate it, my friend.—D.] My favorite ban chan was the freshly pickled cucumbers. I thought they were going to be marinated & cold zucchini, but I was pleasantly surprised to bite into an excellent, crisp pickle. The giant dumplings were also a nice surprise. Not sure I have ever had dumplings that big.


This big.

And the bi bim bop, served on a hot stone platter, is divine.

D: You talked about getting dessert afterward…
DOAS:
I threatened to go up the street to Sunburst & get a big bowl of the Filipino dessert halo-halo, & I might have if it was summertime, but once we got back in the car I just wanted to go home and unbutton my pants.

D: We also talked a lot about Korean film. Two of my personal favorites are Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle, both of which contain scenes that depict memorably shocking acts of cruelty toward seafood. Do you have a fave you’d recommend to fellow cinephiles?
DOAS: The Host is a brilliant film. I saw it at the Mayan a few years back where it played to a packed house. It is probably the greatest modern-day monster movie, so to see it in a theater full of half-drunk & wildly enthusiastic audience members was fitting.

It’s also probably a fine metaphor for our meal, the way we mutant creatures attacked everything in sight…

Restaurant Silla on Urbanspoon

Robbing Korea House

I left Korea House last night feeling like a common criminal.

Make that a blotto, bloated henchman to mastermind Joe Nguyen of Asia Xpress.

It was he who’d cased the joint enough to know we could get away with it: splitting a combo platter meant for 3 2 ways right under the noses on their innocent, smiling faces

KHmeat
& leaving all of $28 apiece for it. A downright dine-&-dash.

Close enough, anyway. Get a load of our stash: in addition to the above-pictured fresh bacon, chadol (brisket) & kalbi (marinated short ribs) for the table grill, accompanied by slices of onion, garlic, potato, mushroom & jalapeño,

we got salad (chopped lettuce in a light, vibrant, fish-sauce-based dressing), steamed rice, our choice of soup—
KHsoup

in this case spicy beef, chock full of greens, sprouts, potatoes & chunks of meat both on the bone & off, all in an addictively smooth, chile-reddened broth bubbling with oil in its stone pot—

plus 9 pan chan,

KHpanchan2
I mean 11 pan chan,

KHpanchan1

plus 2 dipping sauces—bean paste & a salted sesame oil—

plus a (not pictured) dessert of sugarcane juice mixed with brown rice (which actually reminded me a lot of Chilean mote con huesillo ).

Plus, drum roll, the pièce de résistance: a half-bottle of soju. (Not, by the by, to be confused with sake—it’s a common misconception that soju is rice wine when in fact it’s distilled rice liquor.) Pouring our 1st shots almost to the rim, Joe told me about this Asian custom—whether Japanese or Korean, he couldn’t recall—whereby one’s host makes one’s cup literally spilleth over as a supposed sign of generosity. It sounded like a waste of liquor to us. (Screw that cultural sensitivity stuff if it comes between me & my drink.)

KHsoju

Of course, it’s not hard to put out a lot of food. What’s hard is to put out a lot of good food, each bite distinctive. What impressed me about Korea House was not only the quality of the raw meat but of the attention paid to every last morsel, especially in the pan chan. There were garlicky half-moons of zucchini & buttery, meaty slivers of yellow squash. Fresh daikon & firm bean sprouts with just a little zing. Kimchi, of course, & smoky slices of tofu as well as tofu skin. Broccoli in a teriyaki-like sauce. A couple of things I couldn’t even identify. And best of all: my dear ddeokbokki mixed with carrots, cabbage & a bit of pork in a thickish, gently sweet gravy. Only the potato salad struck me as off, mixed with a little too much sugar.

If I said Joe & I ate all of it over the course of 2-1/2 hours I’d be lying. I think we left a couple of bean sprouts. I should mention that Joe is a several-time champ of the Labor Day ice-cream eating contest at A Taste of Colorado. Dear reader, I do believe I’ve finally met my match. (Heading to the restroom through the rather pretty main dining room with its central wooden platform between rock walls covered with ivy & waterfalls [okay, the rocks, vines & falls are fake, but they do the trick], I stole glances at other tables, empty but not yet cleared, to see how normal people ate. To a plate, there were leftovers galore: untouched pan chan here, chunks of pork stuck to a grill there, a good 5 or 6 kalbi over there. Silly, silly normal people.)

And there’s still so much loot to return for. The sight of naeng myun on the menu—a refreshingly sour cold noodle soup—made my eyes cross with anticipation, as did promises of raw skate, “codfish spawn stew” (could this actually be the elusive shirako, as it’s known in Japan?) & “entrails casserole,” all preceded by the key adjective “spicy.”

Meanwhile, there are so many other Korean houses in the area to hit, like Han Kang & Seoul BBQ. By the end of this streak I’ll be rich, rich I tell you!

Korea House on Urbanspoon