When it comes to ethnic restaurants, familiarity breeds more familiarity. As people become increasingly accustomed to a new cuisine, demand goes up, as do the number of restaurants serving that kind of food; and this in turn introduces still more people to it, in a happily non-vicious circle. The process has long since occurred with Chinese restaurants, and you can watch it happening now with Vietnamese and Thai food. Somehow, though, Korean restaurants have never managed to reach that critical mass beyond which the chain reaction of familiarity-demand-familiarity begins. So, all's the pity, they remain few and obscure, catering largely to a Korean clientele.
Why the difficult start? In part, it may be the reluctance of some Korean restaurants to serve Korean food to westerners. You may have to ask for a separate Korean menu; once it's produced, you may find whole pages completely in Korean. To help a little in translation, here's a mini-primer of what you'll likely find in local Korean restaurants, and our reaction to two of them.
Korean restaurant food stresses beef and pork. Look for bulgogi, a thinly sliced, virtually fat-free flank steak marinated to tenderness in a sugar-soy-sesame sauce, and jae yuk, a broiled sliced pork, similarly marinated. They're sometimes served with chap che, a mixture of noodles, scallions and various vegetables in a mild, slightly sweet, soy-based sauce. A more interesting way to have the beef is in bi-bim bab, in which meat, rice, fried egg, spinach, scallions and other vegetables are mixed by the server at the table with as much of a special hot bean paste sauce as the diner wishes.
"Soups" are more like whole meals, huge bowls of broth generously packed with meats and vegetables. Pick the solids out of the soup with chopsticks and let the liquid drip into your rice bowl. As you continue, the rice picks up more and more flavor, and it also helps to neutralize the fire of those soups that are spicy-hot. Speaking of hot, yook gae jang is an eye-watering beef soup with spinach and egg that will clear your sinuses faster than anything in the drugstore. The far milder man doo gook, although it's sometimes described as a Korean won ton soup, more closely resembles a soup of giant-size Chinese pork-scallion- filled dumplings. Another mild soup is kal bee tang, short ribs in a rich beef broth.
Cold pickled vegetables are a Korean staple. Best known, and served automatically, is kim chee cabbage, a Korean pickle in a bright red, hot pepper-ginger-garlic mixture that's as searing as it looks. There are milder vegetables, too, not to be missed-- crisp cucumbers and cabbage, delicate spinach and carrot strips, and intriguing Korean vegetables without English names served in faintly sweet marinades of sesame oil and ginger.