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Seoul Food

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It is a little-known fact that Korean cuisine boasts dumpling soups so doughty they make your basic Chinese wonton soups look positively anemic. For those adventurers who do not flinch from seriously unassimilated ethnic eateries, a fine example can be had at a southwest spot called Myung Dong. Actually it's called the Noodle Hut, too, but you'd never know: tucked into a corner of a faded Bissonnet strip center, the building sports a sign consisting solely of Korean characters.

Go inside. There, under fluorescent lights that render the paneling, red vinyl and violently patterned curtains even more unlovely, six bucks will buy you a meal-sized bowl of soup and a constellation of delightful pickled relishes to go along. It's a gorgeous, steaming affair of gentle sesame-flavored broth and fat, crimped dumplings aswim in a tangle of greens, egg ribbons, seaweed, scallions, sesame seeds and fragile little glass noodles. And those dumplings! Their house-made wrappers make them thin and silky of skin; plumped with mixed vegetables, they are wontons squared.

If the soup is salutary, then the little dishes that come alongside are jump-starters -- alive with contrasting tastes and textures and shapes and degrees of red-chile heat. There's a tingly kim chee, the hot-as-hell Korean pickled cabbage; faintly brined bean sprouts; chewy, sweetened black beans; big, red-peppered cubes of white radish; and barely salted radish squares that are crisp and slightly bitter. Juggling them in tandem with your soup is like throwing a party for your palate.

Your fellow guests send up a soothing murmur of spoken Korean and clicking chopsticks. They address earthen casseroles and mysterious flattened fishes and tumblers of peculiar lukewarm, tea-colored water drawn by the smiling, scurrying proprietress from an insulated plastic dispenser. You may forget you're in Houston -- until a balky child informs his family that "I don't want anything!" They tease grandma about her English. "My English not so good either," the young paterfamilias finally confesses. "I know," sighs his wife. "Go to work, come home, no time." Urban life. Pass the soup.

-- Alison Cook

Myung Dong, "The Noodle Hut," 6415 Bissonnet, 779-5530.

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