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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Fun of Korean Dining Is in the Variety : The Simi eatery offers more than grilled meats. Choices include tasty soups, tender dumplings and pungent seafood.

August 25, 1994|NORM CHANDLER FOX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Because confession cleanses the soul, I will confess to being a Korean food lover. I travel down to L.A.'s Koreatown on Sunday mornings to devour steaming casseroles of tofu . . . drop into tiny Korean barbecue spots where I emerge with every pore reeking of wood smoke . . . and I even enjoy poking around Korean supermarkets, where much of the food for sale is positively unidentifiable.

Of all the Asian cuisines that have taken root on these shores, I feel that Korean food is the most misunderstood. Some folks mistakenly believe that every dish in the repertory is drenched in either garlic, hot pepper or both. Others erroneously assume that it's all barbecued meats, often cooked on a grill at your table.

The best of Korean cuisine also includes wonderful rice soup, toothsome dumplings, hearty casseroles, incredible seafood dishes and irresistible noodle concoctions along with an infinite variety of marinated vegetables.

Don't be dissuaded by the name of Oak's Korean B.B.Q. The restaurant in a Simi Valley mini-mall serves more than just grilled items, and the food is as good as or better than most places in Koreatown.

This brightly lit storefront spot contains roomy leather booths with grills built into the tables, and overhead metal air ducts to draw up the smoke. The congenial servers are all the siblings of the Yi family, and their parents do the cooking chores.

After ordering an icy Korean beer, I start with deep-fried mushrooms ($3) and squash ($3) and a small order of tempura-like shrimp and vegetables ($5). The batter is thick, airy and greaseless, giving each of these morsels a nice crunch. Another good starter is a tasty stir-fry of shredded beef, carrots, bean sprouts and rice noodles.

When our evenings cool down, you'll enjoy the huge bowl of rice porridge soup with tender beef dumplings ($7.50) subtly flavored with ginger, beef and scallion, making the concoction one of the great comfort foods of all time. Or you might try the spicy shredded beef soup ($7.95) or the equally hearty beef rib soup ($8.95). But the peppery broth with chunks of snapper ($9.95) lacks the gutsy flavor of the other soups.

By this time, the server has spread out a beautiful complimentary palette of small dishes of tangy kim chee (pickled cabbage), marinated turnips, spinach in sesame oil, bean sprouts, baby fish strands in sweet sauce, sliced omelet and pickled zucchini. Just the soup and condiments can make a satisfying light dinner.

I keep my eyes focused closely on the thinly sliced beef ($10.95), marinated in sesame oil and herbs, because it cooks very quickly on my lighted table grill. (I once got into a heated political discussion with my table companions and burned half my meal.) After the beef is grilled to my liking, I place it in a crisp leaf of romaine, add some rice, a slice or two of fresh garlic (grilled along with the beef), and a tasty sauce similar to hoisin. Then I fold it like a burrito and enjoy.

Or you can swap the beef for julienned slices of pork ($10.95) or chicken ($10.95) . Sometimes I add some of the tableside marinated vegetables. This is the fun of Korean dining: The food combination permutations seem endless.

Barbecued shrimp ($10.95) are nicely grilled but oddly bland. Conversely, the panbroiled squid ($9.50) are deliciously cooked with chilies, onions and broccoli, while the panbroiled eel ($13.95) is grilled with a delicate sweet sesame sauce that offsets the richness of the eel.

Served for two or more is the winning broiled mixed seafood ($22), a gargantuan caldron of clams, shrimp, squid, crab, snapper and scallops in an herb-scented broth.

Through all of my Korean restaurant experiences, I've learned that dessert is not a major part of the dining vocabulary. Here, as in most places, you receive sticks of chewing gum, which holds my sweet tooth at bay until I can drive to the nearest ice cream parlor.

Details

* WHAT: Oak's Korean B.B.Q.

* WHERE: 1970 Sequoia Ave., Simi Valley

* WHEN: Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

* COST: Meal for two, food only, $25 to $40.

* FYI: MasterCard and Visa accepted. Sake and beer.

* ETC.: Call 583-3434.

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