Review: Little Seoul

Korean cooking mixes three powerhouse tastes
By BRIAN DUFF  |  January 18, 2012

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HOT, SUBSTANTIVE, SMOOTH Little Seoul’s tofu stew with beef.

You hear a lot about the rise of China, but in truth it is Korea that is headed toward world domination. Already they lead the world in nearly every important variety of human endeavor. Koreans create the high-tech components that the Chinese merely cobble together. Their affordable Hyundai cars are basically indestructible. Every week K-Pop music producers unveil little singers more adorable and talented than Justin Bieber. Koreans have outdone American vanity by embracing total reconstructive facial surgery as a reasonable response to less-than-handsome features. They dominate women's golf thanks to freakish focus and precision, and Korea's short-track speed skaters combine power, grace, and teenage insouciance more compelling than any athletes in the world. The video game Homefront depicts a Korean takeover of the United States. The scenario it depicts seems perfectly plausible.

Since Korea is the future, we better start paying attention to Korean food. Here in Portland you can do so at Little Seoul, which offers traditional Korean cuisine along with some Japanese dishes. The Kim family, who run the restaurant, are Korean, and it is their native dishes that appear most tempting on the menu — especially with names like Durp Bop. They have given a familiar Exchange Street space a bit of charm with rich blue paint, rice paper lamps, and other Korean touches.

The great strengths of Korean cuisine are the sour of pickled vegetables, the heat of spicy broth, and the visceral appeal of grilled meat. Many entrées at Little Seoul feature all three, especially when they come with three little plates of kimchi. The cabbage version is the most spicy and sour, the cucumber a bit milder, and the bean sprout kimchi the most subtle and fresh.

A "pork on fire" appetizer came with a few Japanese touches in the form of pickled ginger and a spicy miso dressing on the salad. A big portion of tender pork-belly was not all that spicy (the salad was spicier), but very rich. A kimchi pancake appetizer, pale orange in color, gets more texture than sour flavor from the pickled vegetables embedded in the dough. The pancake is neither dense, nor light, but strikes a nice middle ground. Its soy-based dipping sauce adds both spice and notes of sour.

The durp-bop, which sounds a bit like a K-pop phenom, lacks the colors of its cousin bi bim bop, with soft egg mingled with multigrain rice, onion, and pieces of chicken. Spotted throughout were interesting little sesame seeds that were dense and chewy. Its many interesting textures benefited from a dollop of thick, hot red chili sauce.

On the brothier side, there was much to like in the soon-du-bu jjigae, a tofu stew we ordered with beef. The broth had lots of hot sriracha-style red chili flavor. The creamy tofu contrasted nicely with the more substantive beef. A bowl of ramen, with a chicken broth specked with lots of hot red pepper, warmed and comforted on a winter night. Lots of soft curly noodles mingled with egg, onion, scallions, mushroom, and carrot.

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