Venturing Out for a Bibimbap Bender
I found myself on a bibimbap bender last week after my friend Sam had recommended two of his favorite restaurants in Koreatown. In the spirit of holiday overindulgence, I felt justified in visiting both places in the same week...and I'm glad I did.
Dallas' Koreatown can be tricky. There's so much from which to choose, and it can result in very costly experimentation. The inundation of restaurant signs can be confusing, and full-blown Korean barbecue isn't exactly cheap. Fortunately, many restaurants in K-town offer great lunch specials for those looking just to try an entrée without having to do the whole barbecuing ritual.
My first trip to K-town was to visit Tree House -- formerly known as Namoo. Though its signs have been changed, the ownership remains the same. Tree House is one of the more popular Korean restaurants in the neighborhood. Having always heard fairly positive comments about the place, I'd long wanted to visit, but I'd never quite make it, given my affinity for its rival down the street, Seoul Garden.
That's another factor of confusion when picking out a restaurant in K-town. There's always the debated issue amongst my friends of which is the "best." All the restaurants basically serve the same dishes, so it's hard not to pick a favorite and stick with it. It's also rather common to compare individual dishes at each of the restaurants, rather than the whole of the restaurants.
Although it's clean and simple, the interior of Tree House is a tad less refined than that of Seoul Garden. Tree House does, however, have very large and comfortable booths. Lunch specials include the usual of beef noodle soups, rice bowls and meats all for prices around the $7 to $11 range. Aside from my usual pick of dol sot bibimbap, I ordered the bulgogi, and a short rib spicy soup called woo gu ji kalbi tang.
Dol sot bibimbap is a classic introductory Korean dish for the novice. A hot stone bowl is filled with rice, fresh vegetables, beef, gochujang (Korean chili paste) and a raw egg. The bowl cooks the egg and creates a crispy edge of rice. Although it is a rather simple dish, Tree House's version was very good. It may have had a lot to do with how incredibly hot the bowl was when it came out. The rice that cooked on the surface of the bowl was crunchy and browned nicely. Consequentially, texture had much to do with the success of the dish. Between the fresh vegetables, the pungent mushrooms and the crispy rice, every single bite packed a different texture and flavor.
If only the other two dishes I'd ordered that day were as successful. The short rib soup (which looked so appealing on the menu that particularly windy day) should have been labeled cabbage soup, instead. For a $10 bowl of soup, I expected more than three small pieces of tough meat. The broth's flavor was average, and the abundance of white cabbage made a dish that was supposed to be hearty seem meager. Although Koreans traditionally use a rather sweet marinade for their meats, Tree House's bulgogi, or marinated grilled beef, was offensively sugary. It didn't help matters that the dish was overwhelmed with a punch of ginger. The sugar and ginger resulted in a dish that tasted as if it was a dessert that consisted of beef.
After that sub-par experience, I was left wanting more. Further east on Royal Lane from Tree House, past Seoul Garden, is Chosun Korean BBQ. Had my friend never recommended it, I might have never tried one of the best rib dishes I've ever had in Dallas.
Labeling Chosun as hidden wouldn't be far-fetched. The restaurant sign is jumbled amidst several other Korean business signs and can easily be unnoticed. Chosun sits in a back corridor of an old shopping center that houses a handful of other Korean restaurants. Inside, it's clean and sleek, with lots of wood. Like most other Korean barabecue places, there are Asian themed screen and wood dividers to offer each table a bit of privacy as well as protecting non-grilling customers from the smoke of their barbecuing counterparts.
Chosun offers a daily lunch special, as well, but since it wasn't available on the weekends, I ordered off a separate weekend lunch special menu. Off that helpful picture menu, I placed an order for Chosun's pork ribs just because I'd never ordered pork at a Korean restaurant, only beef. From the regular menu, I ordered a kalbi, or Korean marinated beef short rib, and another dol sot bibimbap for comparison.
The bibimbap came out first, and although it was good, Tree House's was slightly better. The intense heat of the stone bowl at Tree House had created a crispier rice that added a great texture to their bibimbap that was missing in Chosun's version. Also, Tree House had much more veggies and mushrooms in their dish, as well as a stronger-tasting gochujang. All of this could have been avoided had Chosun's steamed rice not b
een so wet. Tree House's steamed rice was dryer, lending to the crispier rice and emphasizing the gochujang.
As for the two meat dishes, the beef kalbi was good, but the real standout was the pork ribs. Between the two, the beef kalbi didn't stand a chance. I've had better kalbi, but rarely have I had a pork rib dish this overall fantastic in another Asian restaurant.
Although the kalbi had a beautiful browned exterior, the marinade left something to be desired. It is supposed to be slightly sweet, but a savory component was missing. The better kalbis I've had always possessed a deft balance of the sweet and savory. This important quality is exactly what made Chosun's pork rib so utterly tasty.
The flavors in this dish are multi-layered and plentiful, yet one never loses focus on the ribs itself. The sweet, the spicy and the salty are only complements to the meat, creating a perfect marriage. The barbecue sauce-slathered, fork-tender ribs were accompanied by a bed of grilled onions, scallions and sesame seeds. The onions soaked up all the excess sauce and grease and were delicious when paired with a bowl of steamed rice.
Visiting these almost identical restaurants can get a bit monotonous, but the discovery of these singular standout dishes makes it a bit more interesting.
After trying these two restaurants, I'm no longer sure if Seoul Garden is my end all be all when it comes to Korean food in Dallas. But, while I'm deciding, I'll just sit back and let my friends battle it out.
Tree House 11425 Goodnight Lane 972-241-5550
Chosun Korean BBQ 2560 Royal Lane No. 105 972-406-0087
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