The Seoul of Sharpstown
Yao Ming is getting unfairly bashed by the mainstream media, according to the sportswriter at Saigon Tex News, Houston's Bilingual Vietnamese Weekly. That newspaper and nearly a dozen others targeted at Houston's Asian-Americans were piled in the front lobby of Sam Bo Jung, a vintage Korean restaurant located behind Sharpstown Mall.
The worn carpets and scuffed-up walls beyond the lobby didn't look very promising, but we found a hostess and took a seat at a barbecue table anyway. The restaurant is divided into two dining rooms -- one smoking, one nonsmoking -- and some private nooks in the back.
"Let's see, I started here in 1986," the waitress responded when I asked her how old the place was. She guessed that the restaurant first opened 20 years ago. The original owners sold out and now run other businesses in the Koreatown neighborhood near Long Point and Gessner.
The multi-language newspapers in the lobby suggest that Sam Bo Jung is the most cosmopolitan of Houston's Korean restaurants. In Long Point's Korean restaurants, you sometimes feel like a nuisance if you can't speak Korean. But at Sam Bo Jung, I suspect Korean customers are the minority.
On that first visit, we ordered our favorite Korean barbecue items, the thin-sliced marinated steak known as bulgogi and the marinated short ribs called gahlbee. The beef is served raw; you cook it yourself on the gas grill set in the center of the table. But before the meat arrived, we got the dozen little bowls of condiments that always seem to accompany a Korean restaurant meal. A vegetarian easily could make a meal out of this free stuff alone.
There were two kinds of seaweed salad, one made with big flat, lasagna-noodle-like kelp and another made from a crunchy sea grass that looks like green threads. Both were topped with spicy sesame dressing. I also sampled some barely fermented baby cucumbers that tasted like kosher half-sour pickles, some raw cabbage in brine, some boiled potatoes in a spicy marinade, shredded radish, salted bean sprouts, thin strips of fish cake, kimchi and rectangles of spicy tofu in chile oil. Oddly, there was also a bowl of romaine lettuce in a bland salad dressing.
When we got the bulgogi and gahlbee, I was shocked by the amount of sinew and gristle the meat contained. Unfortunately, they set down the plates in front of my dining companion, a woman who is squeamish about such chewy beef by-products. When fully cooked, the meat was fine for my tastes, but I don't mind a little fat. My companion inspected each slice carefully before putting it on her plate and found very few that met her standards.
I was also quite surprised that the meat came without the whole romaine lettuce leaves that I had assumed were an intrinsic part of the bulgogi experience. Looking around the restaurant, I saw that other customers were eating their Korean barbecue over rice. In fact, the couple at the next table had a technique I had never seen before. After barbecuing some shrimp on the gas grill, the guy dumped his rice on the grill to soak up the juices and "stir-fry" the rice a little. Then he topped his grilled rice with the barbecued shrimp and some of the condiments.
"I thought everybody ate Korean barbecue on lettuce leaves," I said to him. His date said she's eaten it that way over on Long Point, but here at Sam Bo Jung, it's always served over rice.
"Next time, I'm going to try cooking my rice on the grill like that," I said to the couple.
They giggled sheepishly for a few seconds, and then he told me, "I'm Mexican, and she's Vietnamese, so don't go by us."
"I really like this place," my dining companion remarked on a return visit. "It's just funky enough to be comfortable." I knew what she meant. Sam Bo Jung is truly an endearing dive. On that visit, we looked around the restaurant and marveled at the United Nations of ethnicities and the cacophony of so many different languages being spoken at the same time.
But it's hard to order well at Sam Bo Jung. Many of the dishes you usually get in Korean restaurants are disappointing here. Not only is the bulgogi tough and sinewy, but the marinated squid they give you to barbecue are thick and rubbery. And the seafood pancake appetizer, always a hit in other Korean restaurants, is way short on seafood here. If you're going to eat at Sam Bo Jung, you'll have to expand your Korean food horizons.
The shrimp is the best bet for barbecuing, and you might as well forget the romaine leaves and eat it over rice like everybody else. Try the oversize dumplings, which are very tasty, if a tad oily. If you like soupy noodles, get the cham pong, a spicy seafood soup with thick, square noodles. Sam Bo Jung also has the best bibim bap I've ever eaten.
Bibim bap, which means "rice hash," has long been a favorite in Southern California. In some restaurants there, you get a bowl of fresh-cooked rice and choose your toppings from a salad bar set up with cucumber, carrots, sprouts, daikon, mushrooms, zucchini, kimchi and lettuce. The result is something like a rice salad.
When you order bibim bap at the Green Pine Tree restaurant on Long Point, you get rice and a fried egg in one bowl, and in another, shredded carrots, zucchini, cucumbers and sprouts, all marinated in a ginger dressing. Then you mix them at the table with some of the fiery Korean pepper paste called kochujang.
But here at Sam Bo Jung, they take it to another level. The menu includes ordinary bibim bap and dol sot bibim bap, which translates as "rice hash in a hot stone bowl." The black stone bowl is heated in the oven to a high temperature before the cooked rice is added. It comes to the table on a little stand. When you mix the hash, the heat of the stone bowl cooks the mixture together. But the real allure is the deliciously crunchy crust that forms on the bottom. If the bowl is hot enough, you can scrape the bottom of your dol sot bibim bap, let a second crunchy crust form, and scrape that one up too.
There are two dol sot bibim baps on the menu. I recommend the seafood version, which includes shrimp, mussels and oysters in a spicy red sauce. There are several other noodle dishes and stir-fries that look promising, too. And I love the OB (Oriental Breweries) Korean beer.
The truth is, Sam Bo Jung is not the best Korean restaurant in Houston. But you may find the funky decor and welcome-to-the-Tower-of-Babel atmosphere endearing anyway.
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