King's And I

A Korean karaoke club comforts with casseroles, kimchi, and character

King's Fine Korean Cuisine
1051 E. Moore Lake Rd., Fridley
763.571.7256

Do you have any idea how disturbing it is to clear out the voicemail on a Monday morning lately? Imagine: a lovely, lovely Monday morning, snow flurries gusting through the yellow Northern sunshine like sparkles exploding, the sparrows puffed up in the shrubbery like adorable croissants. And there you are, stacked up on voicemail like vultures, drunkenly ordering me to eviscerate Nick & Tony's, the corporate "concept" restaurant that the Chicago-based, creepily named Restaurant Development Group opened in downtown Minneapolis last fall.

I will not!

From the King's treasure chest: Pork bulgogi
Tony Nelson
From the King's treasure chest: Pork bulgogi

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King's Fine Korean Cuisine

1051 E. Moore Lake Road
Fridley, MN 55432

Category: Restaurant > Korean

Region: Fridley

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For one thing, it is as nothing for you to spill out of work and get three sheets and an entire duvet cover to the wind while furiously working your cell phones. (And darlings, with the things you leave for me I shudder for the calls you are making to your exes.) But for me, I would have to go again and again, ordering from a menu which, I have spine-shiveringly learned, contains such odd bedfellows as "Cowboy Ribeye," teriyaki chicken, "Mongolian Style Ahi Tuna," oysters Rockefeller, and tabbouleh. Did I say odd bedfellows? I didn't mean that. I think I meant insane bedfellows. Were the Mongols known for their deep-sea fishing? I can't recall. Well, no matter how often you dial, you have another think coming. Why? Partly because I fervently hope never again to eat at a restaurant that calls itself a chophouse and also serves pot stickers and spinach ravioli in tomato vodka sauce. Primarily, however, reviewing Nick & Tony's would seriously interfere with one of my most important ongoing projects, which is pretending that Nick & Tony's doesn't exist.

Consider my rigorous schedule. I arise, full of hope, bright-eyed, the music of faith in the future reaching me on winter sunbeams. At 9:00 a.m. I promptly take my chair and, with absolute focus and concentration, begin pretending that the California Pizza Kitchen doesn't exist. At 9:15 I switch gears and begin positive visualization exercises, hallucinating a peaceful, prosperous world without a T.G.I.Friday's in the middle of downtown. At 9:30 I start the real work of the day, pretending that Block E is a tap-dancing school for promising orphans with an eye on the vaudeville stage. Then I clean out the voicemail, and it all goes to hell in a handbasket, with just a short 12-martini lunch separating me from the inevitable federally mandated evacuation to Gstaad. I think I hear the 'copters now. Sigh.

Most important, every second I spend mocking corporate concept restaurants (Concept! Fools and their money--can they be parted?) is a moment that I am not enjoying the treasure chest that is King's, the Korean restaurant in Fridley that promises to be the beloved ace in the hole for northeast Minneapolis that Quang is for south Minneapolis. With beer! And, for the adventurous, Soju, the Korean drink that's like a strong sake.

What a swell place. It's just off Central Avenue Northeast, on the north side of I-694, in a profoundly quiet, nondescript strip mall that feels much farther away than it is. It has a full bar license, late hours (most of the menu is served till 11:00 p.m.), very friendly service (despite occasional language barriers), and an atmosphere so cohesive, compelling, and real that it just makes the jury-rigged insincerity of chain restaurants feel like plastic owls on Wal-Mart roofs--disturbing and fake, but not dangerous.

King's particular atmosphere is hard to describe, but it's basically a generic family-style restaurant with simple booths and tables, distinguished only by a dance-floor with mirrored walls at the far end of the room. This is the karaoke area, and every night at 9-ish it comes alive with tangerine lights, videos of lovers strolling through cherry blossoms, and song. Korean karaoke song. Personally, I usually find karaoke disturbing, and karaoke at dinner unbearable. The treacly sentiments of popular ballads are things best whispered in private, I think, and watching people who are uncomfortable and earnest at the same time brings me to a state of nervous collapse. But when I don't understand the language it's not like that at all; it's just atmospheric and artsy and it makes a little cocoon bubble in which you can have private conversations and enjoy the food.

Of which there is a lot to enjoy. If you're not familiar with the Korean way of eating, here's the lowdown. Food is always served with "panchan," a variety of dishes--condiments, tapas, or both--that usually includes kimchi, which is fermented cabbage spiced with chiles. On my visits to King's, other panchan have included a crisp rice-vinegared daikon salad, pickled bean sprouts, sesame-dressed translucent rice-noodle cakes, and more. Rice is the main part of the meal, and so the general goal with the panchan is to season the rice, liven it up, or otherwise keep it interesting, therefore, the idea is to move everything across your rice. For example, if you have bulgogi and kimchi on the table, you move some meat onto your rice, move some kimchi up there, and eat it all together or separately; you have some rice; you repeat. (Alternately, you can just eat your panchan like most Americans do--like a side of olives, say. Which is fun, too, but if you do this you should know that sometimes dishes will be very, very strong--you're having an experience akin to eating the salsa or chutney out of the jar. One more caveat: Traditional Korean fish preparation often involves serving hacked fish with the bones still in it--good for flavor, bad for avoiding fish bones--so stay away from fish stews and soups if you're bone-squeamish.)

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