When I first came to Central Florida to review restaurants, over 27 years ago, there was only one exclusively Korean restaurant in the area: Korea House. We have several more now and some very good ones, Shin Jung and Seoul Gardens among them, but the Korean category hasn’t had the exponential growth of, say, Thai.
But a new one recently opened on East Colonial Drive in Orlando: Korea House.
The restaurant that has operated in Longwood since 1982, though not in the same space, has opened a second location. Both restaurants share the same menu, which has expanded over the years and has arguably become more authentic as the dining public has become more adventurous.
Way back in 1988 when I first reviewed the original Korea House (it was my seventh restaurant critique for Florida magazine in the Sunday Sentinel), I don’t recall that tabletop cooking was as big a thing as it is now. In fact, at the new KH, all of the center tables have built-in griddles, and on a recent evening when I visited, there were people waiting for one of those tables to open up, even though there were several other non-cooking tables available. Most of the griddles were being used by families having a home-cooked meal without the home (even though the place is called Korea House).
Frankly, I’ve never understood the allure of going to a restaurant and cooking the food myself, whether it was fondue or hot pot cooking. I’d much rather let the kitchen do that for me.
So on both of my visits, I was content to take one of the outer tables and order from the rather extensive menu.
On that busy first evening, my guest and I ordered the Gun-mandu dumplings for an appetizer. these are similar to Japanese gyoza or Chinese potstickers, the wonton wrappers filled with a mixture of ground beef and pork, then pan fried to get the outside of the wrapper good and bubbled.
They were OK, but they were served with the various dishes of pickled and fermented vegetables that are the keystone of a Korean restaurant experiment, and most of them were appetizer enough. I especially liked the radishes, fish cakes and bean sprouts. But I have to say that the kimchi — as close to a national Korean food as you can get — wasn’t quite as tantalizingly pungent as it might have been. I remember having kimchi for the first time and thinking I’d found the most wonderful food in the world. That was at Korea House in Longwood.
For our entrees we had the L.A. Galbi and the Bulgogi, also very popular Korean staples. Bulgogi is often referred to as Korean barbecue, but that would confuse anyone who orders it expecting anything even remotely similar to American barbecue, no matter what region you’re talking about. Instead, it’s thinly sliced beef marinated in a sauce that includes crushed pear, garlic, ginger and other seasonings. It gives the meat a flavor that is both astringent and sweet. It was served on a cast iron platter in a wooden tray with grilled onions mixed in with the meat.
The L.A. Galbi (sometimes spelled kalbi) supposedly gets its name from Los Angeles, where this preparation is more common. Traditional galbi — the word means ribs — feature the meat on the full section of rib bone. In L.A., the ribs are cut laterally across the bone, so you get something that resembles a miniature, thin bone-in ribeye. Other than that, the preparations are about the same, and the marinade is similar to the Bulgogi. The advantage with the Galbi is that if you’re not deft with chopsticks you can pick the rib up by the bone.
On another visit I sampled Haemul-Pajun, a seafood pancake. Just as Korean barbecue doesn’t look like Western barbecue, a pajun (or pajeon) pancake doesn’t look anything like something you’d find at IHOP. It’s made with a special Korean pancake mix of different types of flour seasoned with garlic, pepper, onion and corn. The Haemul-Pajun might remind you more of a thin frittata or a wet pizza. The pancake here had big hunks of shrimp and octopus, and the green onions and hot peppers that were baked in gave it varied textures.
This time my entree was a cold Bibimbap, which had rice in the bottom of the bowl and layers of greens and vegetables, including shredded carrots and zucchini. And on top, a fried egg. This is the sort of dinner-in-a-bowl entree that I love, and this one was very good.
Service was stellar on both visits. On the first, we were a bit pressed for time. I let our server know that and she made sure the food flew out of the kitchen and onto our table.
The decor isn’t anything special or especially appealing, but it isn’t an unpleasant place to dine. Or, if you really want to, cook.
Korea House is at 4501 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-896-5994.