Is there a cuisine more misunderstood than Korean?
Most people I bump into appreciate Korean food chiefly for such barbecue dishes as kalbi, those marinated beef short ribs that you cook on your own private brazier at a Korean restaurant. And that's fine, if you don't mind going home from a Korean restaurant smelling like Smokey the Bear.
But that dish is only a button on the shirt of this robust cuisine. Korean food is hardy and fiery--farmhouse food, a cold-weather cuisine with both depth and variety.
I enjoy it mostly for its soups, stews, handmade noodles and rice casseroles, all of which are faithfully accompanied by a table full of pickled vegetable dishes and other condiments. I make it a personal rule never, absolutely never, to do any cooking myself at Korean restaurants.
Neither would you, if you had a family like the Chois to cook for you. Their tiny Garden Grove restaurant, Miho, is the best place I've found outside Los Angeles' Koreatown, and in fact may compare favorably with anything up there.
Nothing on the surface would indicate its greatness. It's just a bright, modest place with a minimum of decoration, apart from a couple of Korean paintings on the narrow wall opposite the open kitchen. Six or seven tables are cramped together along that wall.
There is one waitress to serve you, and her English is practically nonexistent. So the first time I ate there, I needed help from a customer to get what I wanted. A few Korean businessmen are usually in residence, slurping flat, diaphanous noodles from enormous bowls, relaxing with a stack of Korean language newspapers.
Everyone is most welcoming, but both the waitress and the customers are bound to look surprised when you order huk gyum so, listed on the bilingual menu as "rice and goat soup with meat, perilla seeds, parsley, garlic, etc.," plus the parenthetical disclaimer "(may be spicy)." "You sure you like that?" asked a gentleman at the next table, as the waitress conferred discreetly with one of the elderly ladies behind the range.
Ultimately, persistence prevailed. I decided to inform the cook, through a makeshift interpreter, that I had eaten the dish many times in Korea and liked it very much. At that point, she beamed and said something polite (I think) in her language.
So OK, I'd lied. But this dish, if my mother will forgive me for saying so, is one I'd lie for again and again. It's probably the most seductive soup I've had in the United States: a rich, red bowlful of deep, mysterious flavors. And it certainly is spicy.
On the surface of the soup--a surface flecked with red pepper and minced garlic, calling cards of Korean cuisine--swim tiny perilla seeds (from the beefsteak plant, whose leaves are known as shiso in sushi bars). Underneath, there is an abundance of shredded goat meat and a medicinally sweet green vegetable resembling spinach that is literally translated as "spring chrysanthemum."
You'll find a few better-known dishes on this menu, and a few others you've probably never seen before. They're all terrific. The bottom third of the menu is labeled "food for beer or wine," all snacks considered to stimulate thirst.
Pin dae ttok, listed as "traditional vegetable cake" on the English menu, is a large, flat, crisp mung bean pancake with a sweet-salty flavor, cooked on a griddle with leeks. An oyster and green onion pancake is thicker, and wonderfully soft in the middle from egg and rice flour. Minced oysters permeate every bite. Both pancakes are eaten with an anchovy-flavored sauce.
Oo joh is something really unusual. The dish has an irresistible English translation ("special beef feet meat dish") and is sure to be either loved or hated. It's essentially a mass of beef tendons: a tender, steaming dish of a foodstuff you almost never see in this country, flavored with abundant black pepper. It has a soft, yielding texture, and it goes wonderfully well with a draft of icy Korean beer.
The less exotic fare is equally magnetic. Those handmade noodles are wonderful--soft, firm and just slightly floury, as perfect in texture as the most expertly cooked al dente pasta. I tasted them in a strong chicken broth with sliced cucumber--Asian comfort food at its best--and also in an anchovy broth, a watery soup that seemed to me to lack courage.
Then there are various casseroles with wonderfully appetizing names such as "fresh bean mixed boiling casserole," "mixed gruel with abalone" and "fermented bean paste casserole" (also disclaimed with a note: "may not be desirable smell"). The house standby is "rice and assorted six vegetable and egg" (perhaps better known by its Korean name, bi bim bap, and a favorite with Western palates), and it is more than desirable, one of the most appealing versions of the dish you'll see.
The components sit discreetly under a fried egg, intense with the colors only really fresh vegetables can exude: carrots as orange as a sunset, cucumbers the pale green of lime pulp, bean sprouts as yellow as the moon. You mix it all up with rice, some of that deep red spicy bean paste, the egg and delicious ground beef hiding underneath. Voila, a dreamy lunch dish that you'll never get tired of.
Miho is inexpensive to moderately priced. Dishes for beer or wine are $5.50 to $20.99. Dishes in the menu's special category are $5.50 to $13.99.
* 9735 Garden Grove Blvd., Suite B, Garden Grove.
* (714) 539-5064.
* Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. through midnight.
* Cash only.