Grilled Pork Belly and Gateway Korean Food at Kimchi House in Seattle
I'm told that "bibimbap" has a few possible Korean pronunciations, but I heard some especially creative ones (including a couple that started with the sound "buy") in just a short time at Kimchi House in Seattle. Granted, I was in the one-time Scandinavian neighborhood of Ballard, where the opening of a Korean restaurant is a bit of a novelty. The restaurant owners explained that many of their local customers aren't terribly familiar with Korean food, but game to give it a try.
As a result, Kimchi House serves up a simple menu, with dishes like bibimbap, bulgogi, and kimchi fried rice. Some dishes are fused with American classics to create a sort of gateway into Korean cuisine: witness the bulgogi sandwich, or the kimchi fries. Ordering at the counter enables the staff to explain the food. When I asked about a "signature" dish, I was steered to the Grilled Pork Belly ($8.25), a meal that comes with salad, rice, and two banchan.
The pork belly (pre-cut, so there's no playing with scissors here) is typical of what you might grill on your own at a Korean barbecue restaurant. It's sliced thinner and a little leaner than usual, which makes it an easier sell to those who might fear the fat. (A nearby diner asked me what "pork belly" is, and was relieved when I told him it was a close cousin to bacon.) Marinated in a sweet soy sauce, the meat was juicy, tender, and delicious, and there was a generous portion to enjoy.
The salad contained simple greens in a typical soy sauce and sesame oil dressing that's both sweet and spicy. The banchan changes constantly, and is suitable for the season. With this meal, the offering was potato pieces in a sweet soy sauce, along with the kimchi of the day: daikon radish. The kimchi was crisp and flavorful, though less pungent and less spicy than I make at home and get elsewhere.
But this is their house, with "house" right in the restaurant name. Mother and daughter preside over the small place in friendly fashion, watching over the diners and sometimes telling them to bibim (mix) their bap (rice). While the menu may be a bit limited and the flavors a little conservative (less peppery, garlicky, and pungent than other Korean restaurants), the food is made fresh and with care, as you can see in the kitchen. This is mom's cooking more than refined dining, and that's refreshing in its own right.
The restaurant hopes to expand their menu as customers start delving into the many pleasures of Korean food. I can envision proud Ballardites ordering ssamjang and samgyeopsal confidently, and with perfect pronunciation.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.