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Seoul Food

Christopher Gardner

Deep Roots: Korea House flourishes on El Camino Real with cuisine as colorful as the garden outside.

Korea House proves itself a time-tested temple to kimchee and grilled edibles

By Andrew X. Pham

SOMETIMES WE'VE known and enjoyed familiar places for so long that we take them for granted. The many good meals, the uniqueness of the flavors, are easy to forget because they've always been consistent. Once in a while, we rediscover our appreciation.

Korea House has resided on El Camino Real for a long time. While the valley grew and with it a proliferation of Korean diners (some homely, some so Westernized they're meaningless), Korea House continued to serve its simple traditional fare, winning scores of loyal patrons.

The restaurant is a simple affair, nothing more fancy than dark carpeting, plastic flowers and vinyl booths. The waitstaff are not all fluent in English, the menu not self-explanatory. This place earns its following not with its decor, but with the colorful offerings the servers bear on their trays.

An even dozen saucers and terrines of kimchee and various salads escort most of the entrees. The tabletop comes alive with colors, spices and mysterious tidbits--a bounty of possibilities. These include bean sprouts in oil, pickled Chinese cabbage, smoked mackerel, dried herring, pickled bitter melon, fresh baby broccoli tips tossed in vegetable oil, bean curds, vegetable dough squares and pickled squid--and many more.

Ranging from bland to highly spiced, slick to coarse, crunchy to soft, these palate invigorators, no more than a spoonful each, bring much more to the meal than just variety. Fun to sample, they also showcase the kitchen's skill.

A neutral starter is gul jun ($10.95). Although the menu describes this dish as "egg rolled oyster," it actually consists of a dozen mini-oyster omelets. Large shelled oysters are lightly fried in spoonfuls of fluffy egg batter. The scrambled-egg envelope preserves the oyster's moistness, leaving the meat juicy. Easily underestimated for their simplicity, these brilliant yellow discs can tantalize with no more than a dipping of light teriyaki sesame sauce.

Cold noodles are often an acquired taste, but Korea House eases the way with jap chae ($8.95). Tossed with julienned carrot, onions, beef, soy sauce and sesame oil, then served at room temperature, the clear rice noodles are surprisingly full-bodied and elegant. Moreover, there is something seductive and playful about the way these resilient strands pass through the lips and over the tongue.

Any meal simply must involve one of the spicy soups that comes to the table bubbling in a superheated iron pot. Each soup builds upon a common base of pork stock strong in garlic and chili. Dae gu jige ($9.50) adds filets of cod, large onion wedges, scallions, zucchini coins, clear noodles and Chinese cabbage. Al jige ($9.50) stews fish eggs and bean curd in place of cod, producing a thicker and creamier soup, though less flavorful. The real strengths of the Korean jige lie in the piquant, searing spices that paradoxically emphasize the vegetable sweetness.

A steadfast favorite, bul kogi ($10.95), delights the senses in unexpected ways. The dish begins with the sizzling arrival of an iron platter of finely sliced beef, marinated and grilled until it crinkles. The marinade--thick soy sauce, garlic, scallions, black pepper and sugar--dominates without overwhelming the perfectly cooked meat.

There is only one way to eat bul kogi. First, take a whole leaf of red lettuce and dab its inner surface with miso paste. Holding the leaf in one hand, add about a tablespoon of Korean steamed rice. Then pick a sliver of kimchee to go on the rice. Last, top it off with the grilled beef. Roll the lettuce into the semblance of an open-ended burrito. And eat.

Upon first bite, the exuberant crunch of the lettuce refreshes the palate, preparing it for the surprising meld of flavors and textures that hide within the roll. The glutinous rice moderates the lettuce crunch, the salty-sweet tang of the miso and the sour-spicy kimchee contrast with the flatness of the rice, and then the meat transforms everything. One word sums it up: fabulous.

Hae san mul gui ($13.95) is a variation of the above. Oyster sauce provides the foundation for squid, fish, scallion and vegetables; however, the searing effect of a hot iron skillet caramelizes the oyster sauce into a bittersweet paste--not entirely flattering. The squid also proved rather tough, and the tiny scallops were too fragile for this type of cooking.

Despite this misstep, Korea House richly rewards the patrons who keep returning to this favorite haunt. From the first kimchee morsels to the last bites of grilled beef, it richly deserves its status as a time-tested temple of good Korean cuisine.

Korea House

Address: 2340 El Camino Real, Santa Clara
Phone: 408/249-0808
Cuisine: Korean
Ambiance: casual
Entrees: $7-$15
Hours: Daily, 11:30am-11:30pm

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro

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