Just because I'm Asian doesn't mean I can read Korean. So if you take me out of my comfort zone and into the Korea Town (K-Town)/Spring Branch area of Houston, I'm just as lost as anyone else who can't read Korean signage.
It's for this exact reason that I have very little knowledge of Houston's "Long Point," or K-Town area. But thanks to Twitter, and a short debate about whether Korean service in Long Point is better than service in Chinatown/Bellaire Blvd Asian restaurants, I was going to get a crash course in K-Town eating. Chris Frankel, a bartender at Anvil who is of mixed Korean heritage, agreed to take me on K-Town food tour, just to see if the service was any different. Total. Score!
Frankel ended up corralling a small group of his foodie friends that included someone who thinks she's married to food (we will call her Liz), Houston's very own Master Chef contestant, Alvin Schultz, and Sous Chef John, whose day job involves churning out Indian cuisine at Pondicheri.
To start, Frankel picked a casual restaurant, Han Mi Jung, or Korean Diner, as the meeting point and first stop on our tour. A place he said he likes to go to for a quick meal or takeout, it was easy to find with prominent neon signage saying "Korean Diner." The five of us met briefly before getting down to the difficult business of choosing what to eat.
We settled on a classic stir-fried Korean sweet potato noodle called jap chae, cold buckwheat noodles in broth, or mool naeng myung, and a hot pot soup made with a sort of curdly ground soy pulp stew, or kongbiji jigae. Liz specifically wanted to order kongbiji jigaebecause she said it was hard to find.
I was puzzled by an item on the menu that was translated into English as "cow's foot," so I asked the Korean waitress what it was. She nodded her head and replied something like "cow's feet, very good, yes" but the next thing you know, the cow's feet dish had arrived at our table.
The boiling soup-like dish came out the same way that you often see sukiyaki served, in a shiny bowl, set atop a small burner, and bubbling hot. Flavor-wise, there was a very slight gaminess to this mildly beef flavored soup, and the "cow's feet" in fact turned out to be thin slices of beef shank and tendon. It was interesting to taste, and not unpleasant, but it probably won't make my list of go-to Korean dishes anytime soon.
Moving on, we decided to head to Soju Bang (10049 Long Point Rd., 713-722-0578), a Korean drinking bar where the drink of choice is -- surprise, surprise -- soju. Milder in flavor than sake, the soju is a distilled rice beverage that goes down the throat warm and smooth, even though it's usually served cold.
Walking into the rather nondescript place, I loved the rice paper wall partitions, the wooden tables and benches with the festive red pillows, and the dim, yellow paper lantern lighting. Although it was pretty empty on a Monday night, some upbeat K-pop music was playing in the background, and I could see how a place like this would appeal as a drinking bar.
The menu was pretty extensive, but it was mostly "drinking" type food, and the waitress, taking a look at our mixed group, suggested a lot of American, easy-to-eat fried dishes, like chicken strips. She also seemed to be in an unusual hurry, so we told her we'd call her when we were ready to order. Apparently, most Korean restaurants have a call button you can push when you want service.
Of the three dishes we ordered at Soju Bang, a blackbean noodle dish called jajangmyeon, an udon-like soup dish called kalgooksu, and the some other spicy soup that I don't remember, I enjoyed the kalgooksu the best. It reminded me of Japanese udon and the broth was creamy and savory.
Frankel thought the jajangmyeon was pretty good, too, but I think we were all ready for the main event at that point, so we headed for our final destination of the night, Nam Gang, for traditional Korean BBQ.
The Korean ladies at Nam Gang didn't speak much English, but here, the service was noticeably good. The ladies were nice and attentive, and even though the dishes we ordered -- spicy pork, boneless kalbi shortribs, lamb chops -- came out raw so that it could be cooked at the table, one of the ladies stood at the table turning the meat over until it was all cooked and ready to eat. In other words, we didn't have to lift a finger but to pick up the cooked food and eat to our heart's content.
We didn't once need to use a button to call anyone, and the food was excellent, from the kalbi short ribs, to the savory spicy pork, to the oyster potato pancake. Surprisingly my favorite part of the meal was a steamed egg dish, served as part of the side dishes, or banchan. I'd never had it before, and it tasted like a warm and fluffy savory egg custard, washing down well with the sweet and spicy flavors of the barbecued meat.
So, did Korean service beat out service in our Chinatown on Bellaire Boulevard? I would say that on the whole, there was more attentiveness, more smiles, and more of a welcome, most especially at the barbecue house.
But my original premise about Asian service was limited to restaurants where the average dish cost is under $10, and none of the restaurants we visited fell into that price range. In fact, our per-head cost at the end of the night was about $57 per person, much higher than what you'd pay for just about anything in Chinatown.
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In the end, the trip to K-Town was more about the food, and being with people who enjoy food than anything else. K-Town is over there in Long Point, just waiting for people to discover it, and now that I have, I'm already plotting my next trip out there.