It's hard to pinpoint what makes kimchi, Korea's national side dish of fermented vegetables, good. Is it the vibrant colors? The insane textures? The salty, intense taste? Whatever it may be, you'd have to go far to find a better dress for leftover rice, and flu season would be a helluva lot longer without kimchi's dual powers of vitamin C and anti-oxidant garlic. After an uneven dinner at Korean BBQ House in Nob Hill, I can say that aside from the slow burn of their remarkably good kimchi, this restaurant makes an über-cure for respiratory ailments that also doubles as a damn fine soup.
But things got off to a rocky start. Despite beautiful weather outside, the restaurant's patio, replete with Nob Hill views and tabletop grills, was closed for no obvious reason. I and my two dining companions were seated abruptly at a rather tacky indoor table. (It was actually two small, mismatched tables pushed together and placed right next to the entrance.) Our server seemed nice enough, but not very detail-oriented. She took two of our drink orders, forgetting the third, and didn’t bring us enough silverware or napkins. After our soups and salads arrived we had to steal our dinnerware from the empty table next to us.
Neither the miso soup nor the small dinner salad was particularly impressive. The miso broth had its requisite green onions and tiny cubes of tofu, the salad its trinity of iceburg lettuce, shredded carrot and red cabbage. The salad dressing was handcrafted and heavy with ginger and lemon zest, but after a few bites the zest came off as overwhelming and bitter.
We ordered beef kimbob ($5.95) for starters, which appeared quickly. The small sushi-like rolls were made of warm sticky rice, sweet cucumber pickles, carrot, cucumber, greens and thin slices of cooked beef. They weren’t bad, just bland, even after a dunk in soy sauce.
Next up was yukkaejang ($8.95), a spicy, beautifully presented beef soup. It was delivered still bubbling in a hot stone bowl (with a protective plate underneath). Hot pepper paste gave the soup a fantastic red-orange color and a sumptuous aroma, and it was filled with bits of cooked egg, strips of tender beef brisket, carrots, mushrooms, bean sprouts, clear noodles and a tasty but unidentified fungus. Our server forgot to bring out bowls for the soup, and then disappeared into the vortex (this is a mysterious server dimension where time has no meaning), so we didn’t actually get to try the soup until our entrée was out.
We also decided on the No. 3 barbecue combination ($34.95, which comfortably fed three of us) of kalbi (pork and beef short ribs), chicken bulgogi, saewoo (jumbo shrimp) and gui (jumbo scallop). All of this was served tableside on a small charcoal grill with several small bowls of banchan (side dishes) of hot sticky rice, garlicky-hot kimchi, pickled radish and cold seaweed salad.
The meats were superb. The pork ribs were fatty but succulent and the beef ribs were so well marinated in a sugary soy sauce that they rivaled an excellent teriyaki. The chicken bulgogi (which literally translates to “fire meat”) was dark red, hot as hell and perfectly moist with char-grill marks. The shrimp and scallops were served on foil, with a deliciously seasoned mix of grilled peppers, carrots and zucchini.
Soup bowls were delivered and, at last, I ladled back a large spoonful of the broth. An almost agonizing heat ripped down my esophagus like a comet. Then my lips went numb. A few bites later I got that badass endorphin rush that makes you feel slightly high and sweaty, and I was hooked. This stuff is like liquid magma, both in the way it looks and the way it heats you up. When your senses recover from the rush, there are flavorful bites of meat, vegetables and noodles to chew on. Yeah, this liquid Hades could sweat the sick right out of you like a night in a sweat lodge or dancing at Pulse.
Our waitress was more attentive after I chased her down for drink refills, and we all cooled our steaming palates with a dish of creamy ginger ice cream ($3.95). The so-so service was still very much outweighed by the mouth-watering meats and head-buzzing beef soup. I'll keep coming back for another meat-high and heat rush.
The Alibi Recommends:
Kimchi with rice
Beef or chicken bulgogi
Korean BBQ House, 3200 Central SE, 338-2424. Hours: Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Price range: Moderate to expensive. Beer and wine, credit cards accepted, patio, vegetarian dishes.