A Soul-Warming Meal at Seoul House

"What's your favorite thing here?" I asked the young, blithesome girl who was waiting on us at Seoul House.

Without hestitation, she quickly pointed to a ruddy-colored picture of haemul dolsot on the small menu. "This is the best. It's the only thing I eat here," she said with a laugh that became slightly stifled when she realized what she'd inadvertently implied. "I hope that's not the only thing that's good here," my dining companion giggled quietly.

But it was set; I ordered the seafood and rice concoction and my dining companion went with a simple bowl of bibimbap. As we waited for our food to come out, I walked over to the "side dishes" cart, with tubs of kimchi and seaweed sitting patiently under a worn sign: "Side dishes for dine-in only." I filled two bowls with some of both, and returned to find that two bowls of miso soup were already waiting for us, steaming and silken.

This was going to be a lot of really good food, for not much money. Thus is the mantra of Chinatown.

Seoul House is tucked away underneath the hulking behemoth that is Kim Son, at the corner of Bellaire Boulevard and Turtlewood in the stately Saigon Plaza. As the name would indicate, the upscale strip mall is mostly dominated by Vietnamese restaurants, but the Korean food at Seoul House is also a very popular draw; it was even named Best Korean Restaurant by the Houston Press in 2008.

Once inside, you'll quickly understand why Seoul House remains as popular to this day: bright and clean inside, with panes of floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the place with light, the restaurant is instantly charming in its cheerfulness. Equally cheerful is the service, which quickly banishes any notion that all Chinatown establishments are run by people who don't give two shits whether or not you like their "service."

At a table in the back, an older man and two young women -- one of whom was waiting on us -- cleaned and separated bean sprouts in full view of the other diners. Nothing untoward going on here. And the bathrooms were so clean you could have dined on the toilet seat. Seoul House's attitude goes a long way towards making you wholly comfortable dining there.

When our entrees arrived, we were struck by how large the portions were. "I'm glad you're here," I told my notoriously voracious dining companion. "I could never eat all this!"

The haemul dolsot that our waitress had recommended was far and away the better of the two dishes. The hot stone bowl -- the Korean version of a comal -- cooked the white rice that coated its sides to a crispy, crunchy yet still slightly chewy consistency that is the hallmark of any dolsot done right, and one of the things that culinary dreams are made of.

I mixed in the spicy stir-fried seafood and vegetables that lay on top of the rice, and reveled in the assortment that was in the bowl: plenty of octopus and squid and even some chubby little nuggets of crawfish. This was the pinnacle of cheap, easy, delicious dining, the epitome of why you make the trek out west on Bellaire.

Across the way, my dining companion was cracking open the fried egg on her bibimbap and letting its thick yolk coat the vegetables and beef underneath. She was eyeing my stone bowl with a curious look of jealousy, however: her bibimbap had come only in a plain, white plastic bowl. We noted next time that she should have ordered the dolsot bibimbap, as she stole pieces of the crunchy rice coated with sesame seeds and thick, red sauce out of my stone bowl.

Her bibimbap was good, but benefitted from liberal doses of spicy gochujang from the red ketchup squirt bottle on the table. Without a hot stone bowl underneath to crisp up the rice and warm the meat and somewhat bland vegetables, bibimbap loses much of its charm.

Fortunately, the sweetly earthy seaweed and crunchy, spicy kimchi from the "side dishes" cart went a long way towards making up for that minor disappointment, as did the bill: $22 for two people, including two entrees, two soups, all-you-can-eat kimchi and two mugs of green tea, which were refilled with regularity and a smile.

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Katharine Shilcutt