Des Plaines restaurant adds Korean sizzle to grilling
Every time I go to New Seoul, I vow to order one of their intriguing casserole dishes, or a hearty entree soup, or a plate of noodles - and every time, once I walk in the door, my resolve wafts away on the mouthwatering aromas of grilling meat.
So, sorry, I can't comment on the mae woon kalbi tang (beef short-rib soup), the kimchi chigae (pork and kimchi casserole) or even the bi bim neng myun (chilled, spicy buckwheat noodles with beef and vegetables). If they're as good as what I have tried, they must be first-rate.
It beats me why Korean food doesn't rank in U.S. popularity with Chinese or Thai or Italian cuisine. Much of it - and especially the genre known as "gogi gui" or "Korean barbecue" - is just what Americans enjoy: grilled meat and lots of it, sometimes marinated in a teriyaki-like sauce, sometimes a bit spicy; dumplings and savory pancakes; and a wealth of little side dishes that can include items such as potato salad and vinegared cucumbers. Sure, every meal comes with baechu kimchi - a pungent, zesty cabbage pickle - and some things can be spicy, but Korean restaurants serve loads of dishes even the most timid of palates ought to enjoy.
Yet if you visit New Seoul in Des Plaines, where Thomas Kim has been dishing up superlative Korean barbecue for more than a decade, you'll find that most of the customers are Asian.
"Barbecue" is something of a misnomer. Don't expect slow-smoked foods, but rather do-it-yourself tabletop grilling. At its best, as done at New Seoul, that's over real hardwood lump charcoal.
Once you order, a waiter will bring out a large pot of burning coals and set a metal grate on top. Meanwhile, a bevy of little side dishes, or "banchan," will appear - several varieties of kimchi and other pickles, bean sprouts, squares of seasoned tofu, chunks of cooked potato and other mainly vegetable-based items. You'll also get a plate heaped with leaf lettuce, a bowl of shredded green onions dressed with hot sauce, a dish of raw garlic cloves and sliced chilies, and two or three sauces, including an addicting, garlicky soybean paste.
Then the raw meat comes out on platters with tongs, and the fun begins.
Beginners will do well to start with the kalbi, beef short ribs marinated in flavorful, sweetened, seasoned soy sauce and thinly sliced from the bone. (You get the mostly bare bones, too, if you want to cook them and gnaw.)
Your server will likely spread the first pieces on the grill for you, but after that, you're on your own.
Once you've cooked the meat to your liking (let it char, just a bit), tong a slice onto a piece of lettuce, add condiments - you may cook the garlic and jalapenos or not, as you prefer - and roll up like a little burrito. If the grill starts to get gunked up, signal, and they'll bring you a fresh grate. It's best to cook only one kind of meat at a time.
New Seoul offers more than 30 varieties of gui dishes. Bulgogi is another beef preparation, marinated and sliced almost paper thin.
If you like things spicy, try the dwae bulgogi, sliced pork in a tangy chili paste. You'll also find heuk sam gyup sal, or raw bacon (translated as "tender pork"). Wait for the coals to burn down before cooking that, or risk conflagration. Other choices include beef brisket, beef tongue, chicken, shrimp, octopus and much more.
Most of the menu features English translations, but servers will explain others.
With all of the banchan that comes with the meal, you might not need appetizers, but New Seoul also offers an extensive list, all sized for sharing.
These include a good version of hae mool pajun, savory, eggy pancakes studded with a variety of seafoods and green onions, and the less commonly seen go choo jun, a lovely starter of green peppers stuffed with seasoned ground beef, battered and pan-fried.
Fried oysters, steamed crab with cucumbers, deep-fried red snapper and stir-fried chicken gizzards also feature in this portion of the menu.
Dessert is sliced fruit, served gratis. The bar offers beer, including the Korean OB; soju, a distilled spirit akin to vodka, but sweeter; and routine liquors, but don't expect fancy cocktails.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu's strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.
638 W. Algonquin Road, Des Plaines, (847) 438-3720
Setting: Shoji-divided dining room in a strip mall spot east of Elmhurst Road
Price range: Appetizers (sized for groups): $6.95 to $24.95; entrees $8.95 to $29.95
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; dinner, 2 to 11 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; noon to 11 a.m. Saturdays; 1 to 10:30 p.m. Sundays
Accepts: Reservations, major credit cards
Also: Limited bar offering beer, soju, etc.; free parking