Food for the Seoul

This little restaurant offers huge Korean flavors

I'm a Korean-food novice, but I'm always more than willing to try new things, especially new flavors. If 48 million people in South Korea are eating it, I can at least give it a shot—and I'm so glad that I did.

Seoul Kitchen, located in the Crossroads Festival plaza at Grant and Swan roads, is a small, clean, bright and sparsely decorated space. Each time we came in for a visit, we were greeted by the scent of marinades and spices, as well as friendly smiles from the small staff.

Our server, somehow wise to the fact that we were not experts in Korean food, suggested we try the kim bap ($4.50) to start. We added on the fried mandu ($4.50) and placed our entrée order as well. Beer ($5 for a large Korean beer, OB) was delivered promptly with frosty glasses, along with a selection of Korean banchan side plates, edamame and a bowl of rice.

We hardly had time to try the kimchi banchan plates—one made with spicy cabbage, the other with a crunchy, mild root vegetable—the marinated spinach or the seasoned bean sprouts before our kim bap and fried mandu arrived. The mandu—Korean dumplings filled with pork, chicken and ground vegetables—were too hot to eat right away, but the kim bap, a sushi-like Korean rice roll filled with assorted marinated vegetables, was delicious.

By the time we had polished off the kim bap and most of the banchan plates, our entrées were already steaming away on the table; only then had the mandu cooled off enough to eat. The crispy outside offered a wonderful contrast to the soft, savory filling, and the vinegary dipping sauce was the perfect finish to the dumplings.

Our server came over to check on us and politely pointed out that we probably should have eaten the rice with the banchan plates, as is customary, but seemed genuinely pleased that we had enjoyed everything so far. My shrimp yakisoba ($8.95) was a huge serving of stir-fried soba noodles with slices of carrot and onion, and a generous serving of large shrimp. It was well-seasoned, not oily and very tasty. Ted was equally happy with his Korean BBQ combination plate of beef galbi and chicken. The thin cuts of meat were tender and moist, and were served with a flavorful sauce that I later mixed in with my leftover steamed rice. Yum. All of the BBQ dishes and the house specialties are served with miso soup, which was a nice addition.

After getting sucked in to the Korean reality-TV show that was on the large flat-screen, and with our complimentary mini yogurt dessert drinks in hand, we left, already contemplating what to try on the next visit. That ended up being just a few evenings later, when Seoul Kitchen was considerably busier. We were pleasantly surprised that the service was as equally fast and attentive as on the first night, when we were only one of two dining parties.

Beverages, the banchan plates, edamame and steamed rice again appeared on the table before I could even open the menu. We decided on crab puffs ($4.50; I can't resist crab) and chicken yakitori ($4.50) to start. This time, the crab puffs came out right away, and like the fried mandu, were incredibly hot, but the yakitori didn't arrive until our entrées were already on the table.

Those crab puffs were some of the best I've ever had. I don't know if I can go back to eating those sad, cream-cheese-with-a-hint-of-crab-flavor wontons ever again; these puffs were packed with crab. When I cut them in half to cool, the crab practically burst from the tight dumpling wrapper. There was just a hint of cream cheese, perfectly creamy when melded with the sweet, spicy chile dipping sauce.

My mandu guk ($8.95) arrived steaming hot, in a bowl that occupied nearly half of the available table space. The dumpling soup—made with steamed mandu, chopped beef, tons of assorted vegetables and an egg, all stirred together in a light broth—was fantastic. The mandu were tasty, firm and not soggy from sitting in the soup too long; the beef was tender, falling apart into little shreds every time I stirred the soup. It was enough for two (or maybe more), which isn't indicated on the menu. The yakitori, though arriving a little late, was covered in a delicious sweet and salty teriyaki-ish sauce, though it left me wishing for more than just the three thin chicken-breast slices on each of the two skewers.

The fried-rice combination special ($8.95) was a heaping serving of well-seasoned, nutty rice with a generous amount of chicken and beef. There were a few shrimp hiding out under the rice; one or two more would have been nice. It was well-seasoned and had a wonderful depth of flavor, and the vegetables still had a nice crunch to them. I generally prefer my fried rice to be made with egg (either fried over-easy on top, or scrambled and mixed in), but the rice wasn't lacking despite the lack of egg.

Absorbed in the Korean soap opera and reality-TV show again, we sat for a few minutes and sipped a Hite beer from Korea ($5), then enjoyed our fruity yogurt drink.

I'll definitely return to Seoul Kitchen soon to try the fried squid ($6.95) and the kimchi soup ($9.95). It's an affordable, quick and delicious dining option with friendly, super-fast service, and a staff that welcomes even the most newbie Korean-food eater with suggestions and a smile.

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