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Monday, September 05, 2005 

You've gotta have Seoul

Recently, I traveled to North Pole to attend a medieval wedding that featured Korean food at the reception. This fact has little to do with my restaurant review, but it's one of those sentences you just can't resist putting into print. The reception made me realize that I actually have very little experience with Korean food, so Tom and I set out to remedy the situation.
Faced with three Korean restaurants in Fairbanks, we chose Seoul Gate. Situated beneath the bowling alley on Cowles Street, the restaurant doesn't offer the most appealing location, and it was painfully hot as we descended the stairs. The ceiling fans in the small dining room were desperately trying to fight the stuffy Fairbanks summer. The walls are liberally hung with mirrors in an attempt to make the dining room look larger. Our table was against a wall, forcing me to sit on a hard bench that was rather narrow considering my generous proportions. Tom declined to give up his chair, claiming he needed to see the exits at all times.
In a surreal moment after we placed our order, a Korean man donned a wireless microphone, thanked the diners, and then began to set up karaoke. As he sang I Will Survive in Korean, words failed me, but it was his Korean/English rendition of Delilah that truly brought a smile to my face. Leaning over to Tom, I shouted "Alcohol and a smoke machine and I would love this place. I'd be here every weekend." Alas, he sang only three songs.
One of the joys of a Korean dinner is never having to order an appetizer. Most entrees come with an array of side dishes. Our order of beef bulgogi ($10.95) came with nine small dishes. A small dish of sauteed greens had been sprinkled with sesame seeds, giving it a nutty flavor enhanced by the soy sauce or tamari used for cooking. A cucumber and lettuce kimchee was mildly spicy and served as a Korean palate cleanser. The cabbage kimche was disappointing, as the spice was overdone in an attempt to balance out the strong flavor of the cabbage. A dish of something white and sliced had us stumped. 'You can better guess these things than me," Tom said. I had all but decided it must be some sort of apple when the waitress told us it was actually radish. A vinegar dressing was all that adorned the radish slices, yet it was wonderful in its simplicty. "It's the best radish I ever had, which isn't saying much," Tom noted. We also had the chance to taste delectable potato chunks roasted in a sweet sauce, a cold egg omelet and pancakes with green onions. Although the pancakes were spicy, they still managed to be bland.
Our plate of beef bulgogi came to the table still sizzling. This was one of the dishes we had at the reception, and I knew I had to try it again. For those who have little experience with Korean food, I would compare bulgogi to a teriyaki. The rich sauce was sweet and smoky, with a hint of spice. The meat was thinly sliced and very tender, though I did find two pieces that had a lot of gristle in them. "I was surprised by how distinctive Korean was the first time I had it," Tom said. "I thought it would be like Chinese food."
While the beef bulgogi could be compared the Chinese food, our order of bibim bop beef ($10.95) was unlike anything I'd ever eaten before. It was served in a huge bowl and consisted of swirls of beef, carrots, rice, greens, sprouts, egg and kimchee and was garnished with slivered dried seaweed. "Wow, that's a very colorful dish," Tom said. "I'm not really sure how to attack this." We each piled portions of the dish on our plates and set to work. As I ate my way through the dish, different flavors kept coming to light depending on the bite – spicy, vinegary kimchee; smoky, sesame greens; smooth egg; sweet, tender beef; crunchy nutty sprouts. I kept waving my hand at Tom to shut him up while I continued to inhale my portion. I sprinkled part of my plate with a bottle of red chili dressing the waitress had delivered. It may look like ketchup, but it was very spicy.
I returned to the beef bulgogi, while Tom continued his attack on the bibim bop beef. "I think I'll just switch to a fork," he said as he struggled with the rice. "Don't write that down! I'll seem weak." I smugly used my chopsticks to polish off the bulgogi, then grabbed the check. A meal for two people (one of them being Tom, who is no light eater) came to just over $20. There were no leftovers, and we left very satisfied, as Tom made clear while we climbed the stairs. "Ooh. I just burped kimchee."