The one thing you can be certain about when you go to Korean restaurants, regardless of their size and price and menu, is that you will always get full. I’ve never been to a Korean restaurant where I think “hmm, maybe I have room for some more” when I leave. Korean restaurants always give you big portions, and on top of that, there is the banchan (반찬). When you sit down all starving because of the steaming broth or the grilled meat smoke from nearby tables, the banchan is the first thing to nibble on and ebb the hunger. You can either get a lot of coleslaw and dongchimi (동치미, pickled white radish in this case), or an array of little bitty plates that look too colorfully appetizing to disturb. Naturally, the size of your bill corresponds to the variety you can sample. And the biggest sample of banchan I’ve had so far is at Sura.
Here’s what to prepare your tummy for when you’re at Sura: 1 starter, 18 side dishes, whatever you actually order (which comes with either brown rice or white rice), 1 dessert. If you order gogi gui (고기구 이barbecue), then you also get a heap of lettuce to wrap. If that’s not enough, you can ask for more side dishes. So let us begin.
And here comes the banchan. There’s the usual stuff: tomato, broccoli, bok choy kimchi, oisobakki (오이소빅이 cucumber kimchi), ggakdugi (깍두기 radish kimchi), kongnamul (콩나물 boiled and seasoned soybean sprouts), pajeon (바전green onion pancake)…
… odaeng (오뎅 stir fried sweet fish cake), japchae (삽채 stir fried cellophane noodles), baechu kimchi (napa cabbage), sliced kohlrabi (the pink thing) and cabbage (the purple thing)…
… tofu, cauliflower, spinach, kongjaban (콩자반 sweet black beans), kaji kimchi (가지 김치 eggplant kimchi), and chwinamul (취나물 a crunchy stir fried leaf vegetable)…
… potato, sweet potato, fried chicken bits, and muk (묵 jelly). (Mudpie *really* liked the chicken and the potatoes.) Now, most of these side dishes didn’t set off any fireworks for me, the japchae was even a bit dull, but there were some BIG exceptions:
This is Clueless. On the left is something similar to the carrots, but a lot more dried-fruity, like a dried persimmon. The texture is denser and crispier, but it could just have been an older batch of carrots, who knows. On the right is some dried leafy thing dried kelp (dashima (다시마) in Korean, or kombu in Japanese), which was crunchy like Pringle’s chips, dusted with crystals of sugar and salt. When microwaved, it gets soggy and similar to chwinamul but I have no idea what kind of leaf it is.
Get on with the main course.
Doenjang samgyeopsal (삼겹살) – grilled pork belly with soybean paste ~ $18. Mudpie felt uneasy with the fatty layer, but really it wasn’t fatty fat, it’s crunchy fat, just like skin. The doenjang (된장 fermented soybean paste) has a distinctive flavor, and is most like the Vietnamese chao.
Jogi gui (조기구이) – grilled “king fish” on the menu ~ $18, Google says it can be either yellow corvina or yellow croaker, and I’m no ichthyologist to tell the difference. Look at those teeth. The head was hard and not so fun to eat (very little brain, and I suppose grilling drained all the liquid away), but the body was well seasoned and perfectly crisp. Have fun picking out the bones.
Bulgogi (불고기) – good old barbecue ~ $25 each. The one on the left is marinated in a sweet mushroom-onion sauce, while that on the right is green tea bulgogi with, naturally, a delicate herbal, grassy taste. The meat came with doenjang, chilipepper, and garlic, but I didn’t include any of those in my lettuce wraps.
And finally, complimentary dessert of the house is either green tea ice cream or shikhye (식혜) (sweet rice punch):
I should add that this place has a huge menu, with inviting names like ginseng chicken soup (samgyetang (삼계탕)) and crab stew (kkotge jiggae (꽃계찌개)). The bill is wholesome too, of course, but it feels all better when the friendly staff smiles at you with the most soothing, genuine smile in their single-lidded eyes.