There once was a Chinese restaurant in this town that hung on, for many years, at the corner of Academy and San Miguel. I never ate there. I can't tell you if the food was good, bad or ugly, if the waitstaff was super or surly, or if the decor would have made Liberace cringe. There was a brief incarnation of the same place as a dim sum eatery and I never ate there either. But now 1231 N. Academy Boulevard is a Korean restaurant and karaoke bar called Koryo, and I can probably tell you more than you want to know about it.
First of all, the food is really, really good. OK, so they don't offer kim bap, a sort of Korean version of California rolls (filled with pickled vegetables instead of raw seafood, served with a spicy, salty dipping sauce) that my family loves. Somehow, I can overcome that. The interior is warm and inviting, not veering into the kitschy Oriental look that some restaurants go for. There's a sizable non-smoking room, and the smoking dining room comes with the bar. There's also a dance floor surrounded by mirrors, something to watch out for if your children are fleet of feet when out of your grasp.
As cold weather sets in, Koryo is the place to eat. A mighty fine list of soups will ward off the severest chills and fill your tummy with a warm, contented glow. If the menu describes the soup as spicy, take heed, because the more red flecks of chile in your soup, the more your earlobes will sweat. The tofu and bean paste soup is one example -- a rich, thick, slow-simmered broth overlaid with tantalizing tingles from the chiles, grounded by the earthiness of the bean paste. Firm, fresh chunks of tofu float about, in good company with fresh green onions, slivered white onions and fresh mushrooms. On the less hot but no less steamy side, there's a comfort soup with the same type of broth that you can sip all on its own. But this time the broth is filled with meat-filled dumplings and chewy white slices of rice cake, resembling a fat, chewy noodle just begging to be slurped.
If you have any small children in your party, be advised that Koryo does not offer a children's menu, nor is there much on the menu that I would recommend for any but the most adventurous children. That said, however, on all of my trips the kitchen has obliged us with a very yummy dish of fried rice with chicken and vegetables for the little ones. And the chewy rice cakes in the soup I mentioned above? I had to fight my three-year-old just to get some for myself.
The Bulgogi is also mighty fine at Koryo. The thinly sliced, marinated beef is grilled and tender, and you get served a large mound of it. You also get lettuce leaves and a dish of earthy, pungent, sweetly hot sauce to go with that, one that is well on its way to becoming my favorite condiment of all time. The thing to do is to break off a piece of lettuce leaf, pile in a little beef, smear on a little sauce, roll and eat. These should be small, easy-to-handle packets; remember, you aren't making a burrito here. You can also add sticky rice, or some of the Korean side dishes, whatever suits your taste.
Ah, the side dishes. I could make a feast of those alone with a big bowl of that beautifully cooked sticky rice, so easy to pick up with chopsticks. My favorite is the shredded daikon radish, lightly pickled, a little sweet, a little tangy. Kimchi is the ferociously spicy and assertively flavored pickled cabbage that might be an acquired taste for some. The other dishes vary with availability of the vegetables, but you usually get impeccably fresh, lightly salty bean sprouts that go perfectly with everything. The lightly cooked spinach is just ever so slightly smoky flavored, relying mostly on the taste of the fresh spinach itself. If you aren't sure what one of the dishes is, I suggest you just try it and see if you like it, although I couldn't get myself to eat the tiny fresh anchovies with slivered jalapenos. Anchovies are very tiny fish. Even very tiny fish have eyes. Enough said.
Don't limit yourself to visiting Koryo for dinner. You can order off the entire menu at lunchtime, or order one of the four lunch specials. There isn't a huge amount of variety, but there is a huge amount of food. Marinated, spicy-sweet chicken, pork, beef or ribs come in lacquered, compartmentalized trays, with plenty of rice, kimchi, two or three other Korean side dishes, and a couple of dumplings. You won't walk away hungry.
I wish I had eaten at Koryo at least twice more before writing this review. I'm anxious to try the Cornish hen and ginseng soup, which a sign on the wall says is available on request. A whole Cornish game hen is stuffed with several different savory treats, then poached and served in soup broth. You need a spoon, a fork, chopsticks and possibly a grappling hook, but it's a fine meal to be had. The menu lists three stews in portions for two people, and the only reason we haven't tried one yet is because we couldn't agree on which one to try first.
So if you stop in Koryo, look for the couple in the corner arguing the relative merits of tofu vs. beef. It could be us.