Marina’s New Korea restaurant is off the beaten path, but worth a few wrong turns.

Hidden Korea: Wake Up Call: New Korea’s soup comes with a major dose of spices.

Shin Bong’s New Korea restaurant in Marina is tough to find. But its elusive location (off Reservation Road) has not kept customers away for the past thirty years, although word-of-mouth brings in most diners. My husband’s Korean colleagues recommended it. I immediately liked the place when I walked in and saw the dark wood tables and Korean script on the walls.

We started our meal with what I dubbed a Korean pizza: the Haemul Pajon pancake ($11.93), containing scallions and seafood. The rice flour used to make pajon gives it a chewy texture. Sesame oil and soy sauce give the pancake a savory taste that accents the seafood flavors. Golden crust covered the pajon, which was cut into squares for easy dipping in soy sauce. I thought the pajon was more scallion than seafood, but I still liked it. Like pizza, this dish can easily serve as a mainmeal for two.

My husband Laurent alternated eating between his two main dishes: Maemul Soondubu Soup ($9.95) and bulgogi ($10.95). The spicy dark red soup no doubt gets it kick from the addition of gochu jang: Korean hot chili paste made from melted glutinous rice, soybean cake, hot red chili, and salt, among other items. Laurent stifled a few snuffles as he ate. He said the soup was delicious as his cheeks turned pink. He especially liked the pieces of silky tobu (Korean tofu). Fresh mussels, octopus, and shrimp made up the seafood contingent in his soup, but they weremore like condiments than the main ingredient.

The thin filets of beef in the bulgogi were very tender and some of the best that I have tasted on the Peninsula. Every cook has his or her own secret for this dish, but the meat typically marinates in a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, and sugar before getting broiled. The meat comes steaming to the table on top of brown onions. New Korea is very generous with the bulgogi. One order could easily serve two people.

Korea is unique in East Asia for its beef consumption; the Chinese favor pork and the Japanese favor fish. In the 13th century, Ghenghis Khan’s Mongol hordes overran the Korean peninsula and brought their taste for beef with them. Koreans are picky about their meat, looking for all cuts to live up to the reputation of the beef produced on Korea’s southern island of Cheju.

With their country surrounded by water on three sides, Koreans have always featured fish and seafood in their cuisine. My main entree, Nakji Bokum ($10.95), octopus stir-fry, was one such dish. This is a spicy mixture with lots of hot green peppers, so the faint of taste should beware. Spicy gochu jang paste goes into the stir-fry along with chili powder, sesame oil, strips of red peppers, carrot ovals, and onions.

I loved the hot spicy taste with the chewy octopus. Some of the thinner tentacles were a little tough, but that happens when you cook thin and thick pieces together.  

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My favorite part of a Korean meal is the mixture of side dishes called pan chan. Usually they consist of pickled vegetables seasoned with chili powder and boiled or stir-fried vegetables seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil called namul. I love namul and was disappointed to see that there were none among the pan chan.

I did like Bong’s pickled cabbage kimchi, which left a nice tingle in my mouth as did the cucumber kimchi. The cucumber kimchi had a slight fish flavor to it, making me suspect that oysters might be one of Bong’s ingredients. Several Korean cookbooks note that the oysters used to season kimchi dissolve, leaving only their briny tang.  

The chilies and chili powder that seem so typically Korean have not always been part of Korean cooking. Pickled cabbage has been around for 4,000 years, but chilies, an American agricultural product, entered Korea beginning in 1592, according to food historian and cookbook author Copeland Marks in his book Korean Kitchen: Classic Recipes from the Land of the Morning Calm.

It was during a seven-year war between Japan and Korea that Portuguese Catholic priests, who were accompanying the Japanese troops, took the chili seeds and/or plants to Korea. The Portuguese got the plants from the Spanish, who had brought them from Central America to Europe. Koreans adopted the chilies, just like the Italians adopted the American tomato.  

We drank Korean barley-corn tea with our meal, which is different from black and green teas. The Koreans prefer their decaffeinated brew made by boiling barley and corn and straining the liquid. The tea soothed our tongues from the spicy foods. I felt like picking some up in a Korean grocery store, after we left this restaurant that definitely deserves the detour.

NEW KOREA RESTAURANT
300 Carmel Avenue, Marina
384-7171
11am to 9pm Tues.-Sun.

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