Shin Ra Restaurant
Marina's tiny Shin Ra Restaurant showcases the best of Korean cooking.
Thursday, March 6, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Kimchee And Kelp: A patron digs into her noodles at Chin Ra.
Maybe it''s because North Korea''s nuclear arsenal is so much in the news lately, but I''ve been feeling a hankering to try Korean cuisine. I''ve been a huge fan of various other Asian cuisines for many years, and I own several Indian, Thai, Chinese and even Indonesian cookbooks-Japanese is too scary for my home kitchen, although some of my friends swear they know how to slice and roll their own raw tuna (me, I''ll trust the professionals).
But Korean food is more of a mystery to me, as it is to most non-Koreans. It hasn''t caught on in Middle America the way its more well-known cousins to the west and south have, perhaps because the Korean population in this country is still quite small.
Marina, however, is home to more than 3,000 Korean and Korean-American residents, and the city boasts about half a dozen eateries catering to their home cuisine. Last week I hopped in the trusty Toyota with my good buddy Cricket, and we set off from PG to Marina in search of the wild Kimchee.
At the corner of Seacrest and Carmel, next to "Mom''s Laundrymat," we found what we were after: A small, barely decorated building with a red Budweiser logo in the window, and a sign reading, quite simply, "Korean Restaurant." Cricket recalled that the outside wall used to proclaim "Korean BBQ" in big black letters, but they seem to have painted over that. Inside, we saw eight tables covered with white plastic tablecloths, a Jesus-themed clock and calendar, a couple of pastel flower pictures, and an oversized TV screen with speakers. (For karaoke night? Just a guess.)
Three tables were filled with patrons, and my mouth watered at the bounty spread out on each white tablecloth: Clay pots filled with steaming soups; thinly-sliced meats still sizzling on iron skillets; casseroles of seafood-laden rice; and, most intriguing of all, many, many tiny bowls of multicolored condiments scattered in between the main dishes.
The menu-which informed us that the restaurant is named Shin Ra-proved daunting, and this to a person who is rarely intimidated by menus on this or any other continent. I asked Kim Mobley, who opened Shin Ra four years ago with her sister Jeom Kyun, to make some suggestions, and we allowed her to guide us through the selections. She raised her eyebrows when we insisted on ordering the Kimchee Bin Dae Ttuk (Kimchee and pork pancake appetizer, $7.95) along with our three main dishes, murmuring politely, "A lot of food, you are hungry."
Indeed. The pancake alone could have served four people for Sunday brunch. More like a large frittata than a standard crepe or pancake, the dish was based on a puffy egg-and-flour omelet wrapped around scallions, red pepper, and lots of peppery Kimchee.
A word here about Kimchee, often called Korea''s national vegetable because of its omnipresence on the Korean table. It''s a pickled, preserved Chinese cabbage with a kick, often served from a can in this country, but which is lovely, crunchy and piquant when fresh-as fresh as a preserved vegetable can be, that is. Garlic, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, chili pepper, ginger and onions, oft-recurring seasonings in Korean cuisine, give it its sweet-hot flavor.
Kimchee showed up in several of our dishes, as well as in one of our nine condiment bowls. The other bowls boasted grated white radish; grated radish in hot chili oil; potatoes in mild chili paste; bean sprouts; zucchini in red fish sauce; preserved sweet potato roots; seaweed fronds; and a dish of spinach-like greens spiked with garlic, white pepper and Asian spices. None of these condiments, except for the bean sprouts, tasted like anything I''d eaten before.
The four-page menu offered a wide variety of casseroles, stir-fried dishes, soups and hot pots. Chicken, pork and beef showed up in a few of them, but seafood and fish, along with tripe, black goat, and other less familiar meats, seemed to be featured more prominently.
I was tempted by the skate wings, a dish I know only from England, where it is most often poached and served in a Hollandaise or lemon-and-butter sauce. But, guided by Kim, we settled on the Cho Ki Mae Un Tang (King Fish soup, $11.95)-an excellent choice, as it turned out. We also ordered the Hae Mul Dol Bibimbap, a seafood fried rice dish served in a stoneware casserole ($9.95); and Pork Bul Go Ki, a grilled, marinated pork stir-fry ($10.95).
Each dish was more tasty and-to us-more unusual than the last. It''s clear that great care was taken with preparation-no slap-dash measures here, no throwing in a little cornstarch to thicken up the sauce. This is a neighborhood restaurant for Korean ex-pats, people who know this food-there''s no fooling Mama.
The fish soup was based on real, thick soup stock, created from the fish cut up whole-tail, skin and all-still boiling away in the pot. Thick slices of tender white turnip, onion, and squash gave it body. The Bibimbap was cooked in the same iron cauldron in which it was served, over a high heat that seared the bottom of the rice to a brown crunch, but without burning. It was flavored with red chili pepper and hot red pepper paste, and had quite a kick. Clams and other seafood bits, along with the now-familiar Kimchee, were scattered generously throughout.
My favorite dish was the pork stir-fry: thin slices of pork tenderloin pounded and marinated in a flavorful hot-and-sweet barbecue sauce, then quick grilled and served on a bed of sauteed white and green onions. I''d never had such tender, flavorful pork.
Cricket''s favorite of the evening was the King Fish soup-she commented favorably that when she took the remainder of it out of her refrigerator the next day, it had congealed into a perfect cube of fish stock. "That''s a great soup!" she enthused.
A big bottle of Sapporo between the two of us and dinner was done, with plenty of leftovers. I''m definitely going back, and next time-skate wings and black goat. I''m ready.