Thursday, October 1, 2015

Korean Bulgogi House

Back in 2007 I'd visited Jeonju for their Film Festival  and managed to sample a dish called bibimbap. No not a boxing videogame sound effect--a bowl of rice with vegetables meat and sweet chili sauce topped with a fried egg, the national dish of Korea they say but also Jeonju's particular point of pride.

So imagine my surprise four years later when this place opened in my town: Korean Bulgogi House, on 408 West Loudon St., Chambersburg Pa (717 263 0419), opposite the Sheetz gas station. The spot was originally a Salvadorian restaurant (not bad); then a Tex Mex joint (not as distinctive); then decided to abandon the Latin vibe and go Asian--and this was the result. 

The inside is bright and cheery; the color palette mandarin orange with dark wood furniture and stone tile surfaces. Tiny but comfortable, plenty of charm. Decor is spare, but what there is is lovely. This three-foot wide fan for example--

And this vase-and-mirror arrangement reminds one of Japanese zen elegance but without the severity, or inimidation, just a corner of the room brightened up with a few choice props:

Perhaps one of my favorite spots is the small beverage cooler (see below), stocked not just with soda but "most attractive" Korean drinks like Sac Sac--grape juice with whole seedless grapes floating inside (second from the bottom shelf, stubby green cans), or Assi Traditional Korean Rice Drink (chewy rice grains in a sweet malty beverage--top shelf, stubby yellow cans). Note the small pansori drum perched atop the cooler:

Found out in Jeonju that Korean hospitality was served in small plates--a lot of small plates. The plates go for around two dollars each (the nearer plate is traditional kimchi--spicy pickled cabbage--while the other is a sweet-spicy radish salad), which may seem pricey for spicy vegetables but when I asked Juni about them it turns out she makes them herself.

"You make your own kimchi?"

"Of course," she replied, puzzled. Unspoken: didn't everyone?

Kimchi has a lot of uses--to waken a tired palate after a session of marathon eating; to sharpen the palate's anticipation while waiting for the main dish to arrive; to top your rice, which may be delicious by itself, boiled and steaming, but with kimchi turns into a steaming spicy tangy flavor festival sparking all over your tongue. 

Then this arrived. Luz wasn't really hungry, and ordered conservatively: shrimp and vegetables, with a cup of rice. The carrots and peppers were crisp and bright, the shrimp firmly fresh, and of course Juni had to sprinkle a lot of sesame seeds on top before serving:

Then there's the star of the house: stone pot shrimp bibimbap--shrimp, spinach, zucchini, carrot, shiitake mushrooms, bracken fern stems, and rice all served in a hot stone bowl. The presentation isn't just visual--the vegetables arranged to complement each other's colors, the sun-yellow yolk against shocking bright white, the rice sizzling against hot stone:

I remember in Jeonju I had to pick up a spoon, add the spicy sweet sauce, then mix all up as fast as I could--didn't do mine fast enough, so the hostess snatched my spoon and mixed it herself. The results were pretty much like this (I had practiced since then):

Korean food at its homiest and most comforting: hot vegetables and shrimp, sweet chili sauce, and the rice--oh wow the rice crackling and sputtering on the hot stone, creating what we Filipinos call tutong, or burnt rice. You scraped it out of the bowl after everything else was gone, and it gave off the smell of something shriveled and crisped, something that spent time concentrating its flavor into purest umami. National dish of Korea? National dish of foodies everywhere, this should be. 

Anyway, this was the final result:

And the rest is silence.

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