Sunday, November 8, 2009

Korean Fo' Reals

In Hawaii, we've got our unique local style Korean food, which has evolved independently for over 100 years.  We've got yakiniku style Korean food, which has gained popularity around the world.   But being the hub of the Pacific, with frequent travel to and from Asia, we've also got the modern, authentic Korean food, pretty much the same as you would get in Seoul.   Having grown up in Hawaii, and used to our local Korean food, I really wanted to try what the cuisine was like closer to modern Korea.   But we've got so many, where to go?    Well, if you're a woman in Hawaii, between the ages of 14 and 84, there's a semi high probability that you're a fan of Korean dramas shown on KBFD.  It believe that it is primarily a function of the attractiveness of young male Korean actors, but whereas soaps and Oprah command the female demographic on the mainland, Korean dramas dominate here.   This is a pretty sizable demographic to be marketing towards, and if you're watching these shows, you're probably seen the commercials for Choi's Garden, over on Rycroft St.   However, if you're tryinig a new cuisine for the first time, it helps to go with someone who is a native to that cuisine to introduce you to the really good stuff.   So I took my Korean friend, Jessica, out for dinner one night, and had her order (in Korean of course).   The place we went is the favorite among Koreans, Sorabol, right on the corner of Keeaumoku and Rycroft.

Just walking in to the two restaurants you notice a big difference.   Choi's Garden is decorated with Korean art and pottery, safely displayed behind plexiglass cases.   Sorabol on the other hand has fancy Korean panelling all over the doorways.   It's got a beautiful Korean scroll themed wallpaper, and ornately carved furniture.  Choi's Garden has the feeling of a family Sunday dinner place, whereas Sorabol has a more elegant decor more suitable for clients, dates, and special occasions.  

Ban Chan at Choi's Garden
The best thing I've found about going to an authentic Korean restaurant is the army of side dishes they serve, called ban chan.  I never really understood that going to Yummy's for lunch, and getting the choice of 4 side dishes is actually a trimmed down version of the dishes you'd get a more traditional Korean restaurant.  Kudos for Yummy's for bringing that uniqueness to the plate lunch level.  But even that seems slim compared to the dozen to half dozen little dishes they bring out at a sit down Korean restaurant.  I always feel sorry for the dishwasher at a Korean restaurant, just imagining the legions of little dishes they have to wash, or at a yakiniku place, the charred on grills they need to scrub.

Ban Chan at Sorabol
There's always a few different types of really strong kim chee (expect much spicier and more sour than the kind you'd get with a plate lunch).  There are all sorts of little seasoned vegatables, called namul.   There are little fish cakes, taegu (squid), or sometimes my favorite, kim chee raw crab (similar to aama crab poke).  You know that scene in Castaway, where Tom Hanks catches a crab for the first time and looks with dismay at the jelly like consistency of the uncooked crab?   I've never really understood that scene, because if he had only tasted the crab, he might have been pleasantly surprised by how good it tastes in that form.  Anybody from Hawaii or Korea would've known exactly what to do with that yummy morsel.  

Dol Sot Bi Bim Bap at Choi's Garden
Following the ban chan, the first dish that Jessica introduced me to was dol sot bi bim bap.   If that sounds familiar, it's because you can order a bi bim bap at Yummy's or pretty much any Korean fast food place.   The difference between ordering the familiar rice dish from a fast food place and going to sit down place, is the "dol sot" part.   The dol sot is a very heavy, very hot, Korean stone pot.  The purpose of which is to basically toast the rice at the bottom of the pot.    When done right, the rice touching the pot toasts into a very crispy rice cake.   You can then mix it up with the vegetables, meats, egg, and the rest of the rice.  If the pot is very hot, it will continue to toast any rice in contact with it, and you can repeat the mixing.   This creates a fantastic contrast between the crispy, crunchy toasted rice, and the soft, pillowy white rice in the same mouthful.   The mix of cruncy and soft along with the other ingredients is so amazingly tasty.

Dol Sot Bi Bim Bap at Sorabol
The big problem is that, ever since my very first time with my friend, I have never been served a pot with a lot of that really crunchy rice at the bottom.   I think when she ordered it, she asked (in Korean) for it to be prepared "extra toasty" or "extra crunchy".  Like I said, it pays to go with someone who speaks the language.  People say the same thing about going to dim sum with me.  You get extra street cred when you go with a native speaker.

Ginseng Chicken Soup at Choi's Garden
Koreans also have a lot of soups and stews.   I think it's a function of being such a Northernly country.   It gets cold, and you're looking for something to really warm you up.   The ginseng chicken soup called, samkaetang, is good example of this.   With the ginseng in it, it's supposed to be really healthy for you.   But honestly the one that I had at Choi's Garden was a little too bland for me.   I couldn't really taste much ginseng (or chicken for that matter) in the broth.

Soon Du Bu at Sorabol
The one stew that she introduced me to that I really liked at Sorabol, isn't offered at Choi's Garden.   It's a firey little broth called soon du bu.   To me, it really isn't that spicy drinking it down.   But after a while, it just warms you up, just the thing for a cold Korean night.   The best part about it, is the fantastic clam taste in the broth.   It packs a much stronger clam taste than many clam chowders I've had in my life.   The tofu in it is such a nice soft, melt in your mouth, consistency.  It's kind of similar to Chinese ma po tofu, without the ground pork.  But the broth itself, has an amazing flavor.   It's much more complex than the simple fire that you're expecting by looking at the bright red hue.   The spiciness doesn't overpower all of the other flavors, like the clam and the vegetables, and it has a wonderful warming, balance and harmony.

Kal Bi Chim at Choi's Garden
Out of everything Jessica introduced me to however, there was one dish that I really fell in love with.   In Hawaii, we're used to the 3 boned, thin, chewy cut of kalbi in our plate lunches.   But my favorite Korean dish, is the stew made from kalbi, called kal bi chim.   In stew form, instead of being the kinda tougher, chewier, meaty strip that we're used to, the bigger hunks of  kalbi becomes amazingly tender. Literally, fall off the bone tender.  At Choi's Garden, the stew is thickened to the consistency we think of as a stew, and it's accompanied with vegetables like carrots and daikon.  However, at Sorobol, the stew is much thinner, more broth like, and it the meat stands alone, except for a few flavor enhancers like a Chinese red date.

Kal Bi Chim at Sorabol
Being sandwiched between China and Japan, I wasn't surprised that I saw a lot of influences from both countries on either side.   The Koreans have their own form of sushi, called kimbap, and their own form of zaru soba, called naeng myun.  As I mentioned, the soon du bu reminded me a little of ma po tofu.  But what really surprised me was the kal bi chim at Sorabol.   I'm not sure what it was (maybe the sweetness of the red date), but there was something in the flavor that just reminded me of something my Po Po cooked for me when I was little.   I don't even have any idea what I'm thinking of, but something about that dish really reminded me of some Chinese dish she cooked when I was little.  It also helped that the kal bi chim at Sorabol was flawlessly executed.   It was so amazingly tender, it rivals the short ribs they used to make in the bentos at Suehiro's.   I can count the number of places that I've had short ribs that soft in my whole life on just one hand.  But while the Korean food is influenced by China and Japan, they clearly have their own distinct flavor.   The marinade for kal bi is similar to, but not exactly the same as teriyaki.   The kim bap has totally different seasonings and fillings than sushi.   It's familiar, yet different and distinct.

It's been awhile since my friend first took me to eat Korean food at Sorabol.   But after being around the island, trying several different Korean places, I still like the flavors at Sorabol the best.   Their dol sot bi bim bap was crispier (at least that first time).  Their soon du bu, a perfect balance of spiciness and a strong clam flavor.  Their kal bi chim, amazingly tender with a sweet, familiar flavor to back it up.  Add to that the elegant decor, and the fact that they're open 24 hours a day, and Sorabol just wins hands down.  They are a bit pricier than other places though.   But this is an instance where you do pay for quality.  And say what you want about the Koreans being rude, but the last time we were there, the waitresses couldn't get enough of my little boys and they kept doting on them, serving them, cutting their meat, and being all around super attentive.  It's enough to make Sorabol my favorite Korean restaurant, and keep me coming back wanting more.

Jessica has since moved back to the mainland, and I truly miss having her around, and not just to take me for good Korean food.   But eating at Sorabol always brings back good memories, and I can't wait to see her again, and to see what she introduces to me next. 


  1. I love this blog, but I feel that you need to put prices too. :D

    Much love, Janice.

  2. How could you NOT dote on my two little boo-boos!? They're the CUTEST! =)

  3. Thanks for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Not being a restaurant reviewer/critc, I've tended to shy away from putting details like price in. But I'll try to include it where appropriate.