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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Seoul Food

Rare Korean cuisine

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As the number of Thai and East Indian restaurants in Milwaukee continues to multiply profusely, Korean restaurants remain scarce. Oddly enough, there were more options for Korean food 20 years ago. In fact, our city only has one place 100% devoted to the food of Korea: Seoul Korean Restaurant.

Owner Hae Jin Park is a native of Korea and runs the restaurant with the assistance of family members. The location is a natural choice, formerly a Korean restaurant called Han Kuk Kwan. Park purchased the spot just more than a year ago and remodeled it at a lightning-quick pace. The walls were painted a warm, rich red and the menu was expanded, with most items actually reduced in price. A lunch buffet was also added, offering good value and a chance to try items not found on the menu.

The restaurant attracts many Korean customers, which is always a good sign for the quality and authenticity of the food. Chef’s specialties ($23.95), which serve two or more at this price, include dakdoritang, a braised chicken stew, or budae jigae (army base stew in English). This combines hot dogs and canned ham with kimchee and Korean vegetables, a nod to the days of the Korean War.

All tables get a few dishes of banchan, which are condiments accompanying the entrees. There’s always kimchee, or napa cabbage, abundantly flavored with red pepper and garlic: This is the most memorable part of any Korean meal. Other items might include a daikon radish version of kimchee, with thin sweet slivers of dried squid and perhaps seaweed flavored with a bit of sesame oil. Don’t be put off by the unusual ingredients all of the banchans have their merits and a broad range of flavors.

Start with an order of steamed dumplings. Choose between dumplings filled with beef and minced vegetables ($3.95) or a vegetable-only version ($4.95). Both are very good; perhaps the veggie ones are slightly better. Be sure to dip them in a bit of sweetened soy sauce with sesame seeds. Hae mul pa jun ($3.95) is another must, a pancake of chopped scallions with bits of shrimp and octopus that represent the milder side of Korean cooking.

Beef figures prominently in Korean cooking; more so than in any other part of Asia. The standard dish is bulgoki ($11.95), thin slices of beef in a marinade with soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and a touch of garlic. Korean restaurants often have built-in tabletop grills to cook bulgoki, but here it is prepared in the kitchen. Sutbul kalbi ($12.95) is a better variant of this theme. It is beef served in thicker slices of boneless short ribs, a fattier cut with more flavor. The marinade is similar, perhaps a bit sweeter.

For something spicy, try je yuk bokum ($10.95), slices of boneless pork marinated in a hot pepper paste. While Korean food, especially kimchee, can be very fiery, the pork brings more of a soothing flavor.

The most unusual menu item would have to be hwe dop bab ($9.95). This is a bowl of room-temperature rice topped with lettuce and paper-thin slices of cucumber and daikon radish. The main ingredient is slices of raw fish. What appears to be a ketchup container is filled with hot pepper sauce. Make sure that some sesame oil is provided; it’s critical to the enjoyment of this dish. Simply add sesame oil to the mixture in the bowl, along with some hot pepper sauce, and then toss all of the ingredients together for a truly delicious dish suffused with the flavor of sesame.

The preferred beverages are small bottles of sake or one of the Korean beers. There is also a minimal wine list. The servers try hard to please and to answer any questions about the menu. Seoul may be Milwaukee’s only Korean restaurant, but it happens to be a very good one. It would be a find even in Los Angeles’ large Koreatown neighborhood.

SEOUL KOREAN RESTAURANT
2178 N. Prospect Ave. (414) 289-8208 $$ Credit Cards: All major Smoke Free Handicap Access: Yes

Photos by Tate Bunker