I've finally decided it's the kimchi. Not the traditional fermented cabbage kimchi, but rather the thin, matchstick ribbons of daikon radish, lightly dressed in a subtly sweet and tangy dressing. That's why I keep going back for Korean food. I can't get enough of that kimchi.
Of course, now I've found Halla San Korean Barbecue, and I think it might be the soup menu that keeps me coming back. Although there is the Dukk Boki, as far from mild as you can get. Dukk Boki is an appetizer, with small, tube-shaped rice cakes -- think really fat spaghetti, perfectly chewy, and soaking up a pepper reduction sauce -- made on the premises. Whoops! Forgot to mention that it's cayenne pepper, and the sauce is a beautiful dance of hot and spicy across your tongue.
If you aren't in the mood for spicy, you can try the Vegetable Pancakes, made with mung bean sprouts and other chopped vegetables, skillet fried and resembling nothing so much as egg foo yong. Or the Mandu, deep-fried pork and vegetable dumplings that are crispy and aromatic. Even a simple dish of Tempura Vegetables is done well, with a whisper of crispy batter surrounding the crisp-tender vegetables. All these appetizers, plus Tempura Calamari and Chap Jae (a traditional noodle and vegetable dish garnished with beef) are $4.99.
If you're hesitant to jump right into an entire Korean dinner, you shouldn't be. But you can get your toes and your taste buds wet with one of the $6.99 lunch specials offered Monday through Friday. Choices include beef short ribs, Bul Gogi (thinly sliced, marinated and grilled beef), spicy chicken or pork Bul Gogi, or teriyaki beef or chicken. The Bul Gogi is wonderful, perfect for beginners or for a couple of kids to split. The marinade is slightly sweet, yet savory with soy sauce and redolent with garlic. The beef is extremely tender, and all the lunch boxes come with steamed rice, two kim bap (sort of like a California Roll, but filled with marinated vegetables in the middle), and a couple of traditional side dishes.
Ah, those side dishes. They are one more reason to come in for a full meal instead of a lunch special. At Halla San, everyone gets their own bowl of freshly steamed sticky rice to go with their entree, and then the center of the table is filled with little bowls of kimchi -- both the traditional cabbage version, and my favorite with the shredded daikon. There's also one with cubed daikon and a fiery hot marinade. There's usually a bowl of smoky, lightly dressed, barely wilted spinach, and another bowl of crunchy marinated mung bean sprouts. Another dish of tan triangles, chewy and savory, I finally deciphered to be fish cakes.
The tables at Halla San, including the two tatami tables, are set up so you can grill the meat at your table, and the traditional Korean barbecue dishes are served with rice, side dishes and red leaf lettuce wrappers. Along with the beef, pork and chicken Bulgogi, you can get prime beef in a soy and mushroom marinade, marinated pork belly or teriyaki. These dishes all run from $12.99 to $16.99. There are some noodle dishes, some fish entrees, and Bibimbab, a traditional dish where beef, vegetables and rice are served in a large bowl, topped with an egg, and you mix the whole thing together.
The dinner menu contains more than a full page of soups, and such wonderful soups you'd be hard pressed to imagine. The Korean Miso Soup ($7.99) has a much richer and heartier broth than you would expect, and this robust broth is loaded with pork, bean curd, squash and onions. Kukk Mandu Guk ($9.99) is the ultimate in comfort food: A soft, rich beef broth holds a few vegetables, pork dumplings and soft, wonderful chewy slices of rice cake. It's the perfect antidote for a cold day or night. Ahl Cheegae ($10.99) is a huge chunk of pollock roe and vegetables simmered in a spicy beef and red pepper broth. Gaejang ($13.99) is another spicy dish, only this vegetable-studded seafood soup comes with a whole crab to rent asunder and devour. (Oh yes, it's messy, and oh yes, it's fabulous.) At the high end is Somgae Tang ($15.99), where your soup bowl contains an entire Cornish hen that has been stuffed and prepared with ginseng, dates, sweet rice and chestnuts. This one comes with a small bowl of sea salt and a bowl of chopped green onions so you can season as you go. Not a quick dish to eat, but rich and satisfying to the last drop.
Halla San has three Jungol dishes that are made for two and prepared at the table, for $25.99. Gopchang is beef tripe with noodles and vegetables, Haemool is seafood with noodles and vegetables, and Boodae Jingae is ham, crabmeat, hot dog and vegetables, all simmered in a spicy sauce. I haven't tried any of them yet, and I think I'm scared. One more favorite Korean dish, and I won't be able to eat anywhere else.