I Hear Korea Singing
684 Snelling Ave. N., St Paul; 644-2068
The first time I noticed the Sole Cafe, hidden behind a bright pink face on Snelling north of I-94, all I could think was: Why? Why there? Why open a Korean restaurant two doors down from Shilla, and down the block from Mirror of Korea? Now we have five Korean restaurants in the Twin Cities, and three are within 200 feet of each other. What about the "location, location, location" rule?
My next two uncharitable thoughts were: It will never last. And why not the Seoul Cafe? The Soul Cafe? Even the Sol Cafe? Six months later it was still there, and on my way to lunch at Shilla I veered off (so that's how it works) to the Sole Cafe, and began to eat my words.
My first glimpse of how charming the Sole Cafe could be came when I ordered their Kim Bop ($6.50), a sushi roll of rice, pickled vegetables, and a tiny amount of pork. This dish is one of my favorite lunches, since it's both light and filling and allows me to work, satiated, through the afternoon, which few other meals do. Often Kim Bop is premade, and sliced just prior to serving so that the roll is room temperature and dense, but Sunny Kim makes hers to order, and it's the best I've ever had. The nori roll around the outside is fragrant and crisp, the rice warm and sticky with a light tang of vinegar, the fillings each distinct and special: The yellow daikon pickles are plump and biting, the tamago (a sweet omelet cut into strips that you'll recognize from sushi) fluffy and warm, the sweet anchovy-marinated tofu bright and oceanic, the carrot matchsticks crunchy, the surimi (that crablike minced fish product) dense and comforting, with the pork providing an anchor of nutty earthiness.
Sunny Kim runs the kitchen here, and her husband Pong Kim oversees the front of the house, which includes a hopping bar serving beer and sake and a complete karaoke setup. The restaurant actually started three years ago as a karaoke bar, and on weekends it often draws a substantial crowd singing in both English and Korean. It's a terribly friendly, encouraging crowd, composed of people bent on making the other patrons comfortable by proving that when no one can sing, no one can be embarrassed. (Hidden in there, too, is the idea that when everyone is singing, to not sing is an insult.)
This resulted in my entire table of microphone-shy wallflowers ripping through some of the most poorly rendered karaoke songs I've ever heard: "Jambalaya," "Venus (on a Mountaintop)," and "Funkytown." One of my companions got to sing a duet of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" with a Sole patron who had tears in his eyes, but the most unforgettable moment had to be me doing "My Way," singing like a parakeet swallowing a sweater in front of a karaoke screen showing camcordered footage of a parade at the Japanese Disneyland.
When they opened in 1995, the Kims say, they weren't planning on running a restaurant, they just wanted a menu of some light Korean snacks to go with the karaoke and drinks. But on a trip to California to stock the kitchen for those snacks, they met a woman who offered to teach Sunny southern Korean dishes, seven at a time. Six sessions later Sunny Kim says her mentor is "like my mother," and she has mastered 42 main dishes in addition to a wide range of pan chan, the array of pickles and side dishes that always accompanies Korean food.
Some of these dishes are truly excellent, like the grilled salt adka fish ($9.50); the skinned, salt-cured, and fire-grilled whole fish arrives blackened at the edges, flaky and succulent. The most expensive item on the menu, Pork Rib Cheem ($11.95)--braised pork ribs served in a delicious chili-laced sauce and served with boiled potatoes--is delectably tender, and the 10 ribs I received (they were those meaty country-style ribs, not the bonier back or spare ribs) were definitely big enough to make an entrée for two. Another great choice is the Ohjing a Dupbop ($7.50), a fresh chili-spiced toss of scallions and squid tubes.
Every meal is accompanied by a selection of four pan chan, typically a mild, crunchy cabbage kimchi (chili-spiced fermented cabbage); a mash of caramelized onions and little headless dried fish; fresh, crispy cucumbers; and a wild card such as shredded daikon, sesame-dressed potatoes, or a delicious little dish of rice-custard pieces cut like crinkle fries and dressed in minced scallions, garlic, and soy.
If all of that sounds a touch too exotic, you can ask Sunny Kim to help you pick out something you'll like. I wasn't wild about Cafe Sole's Bul Go Gi ($9); the dish of barbecued, thinly sliced beef that introduces most people to Korean food was more of a beef salad here, served in a wet, sweet vinegar dressing tossed with scallions on lettuce. But I had a good, mild bowl of Kal Kooksoo ($6.50), which was described as "noodles cut out with a kitchen knife in soup," but turned out to be a very familiar homemade chicken broth with long, fettuccini-like noodles and carrot and potato slices. The only difference between this chicken soup and your standard comfort food was that the potatoes came in slices, not chunks, there was a hint of white pepper, and a few cucumber slices served as garnish. I didn't try the bean-sprout fried rice ($7.25), but Sunny told me later that this pan-fried specialty draws people from all over the state.
Dining at the Sole Cafe definitely takes a certain amount of tenacity for non-Korean speakers. Table tents offering drinks are only in Korean, and if Sunny Kim isn't available, Pong isn't fluent enough in English to answer questions or take complicated orders. Many of the written menu entrées aren't clearly translated: When I ordered the Ohdeng Baekbahn ($7.95), described as "tempura [deep-fried fish cake] served with wasabi, soy sauce, and rice," I wasn't expecting soup. But soup it was, specifically an immense tureen of a very good white miso broth featuring slices of tempura and cheerful pairs of beige and flamingo-pink quenelles (minced fish dumplings) served with a side dish of rice.
The dark interior of the Sole Cafe also could use some decorating finesse. The restaurant is essentially a purple room with dusky formica floors and wall mirrors, capped by one of those atmosphere-quashing foam-tile and fluorescent-light ceilings. (It looks a lot better once the swirling lights that accompany the karaoke take over.) Still, the restaurant is worth watching: Not only are Sunny and Pong Kim making a go of it in sheer defiance of the location rule, not only are they perfecting a few culinary specialties to be reckoned with, but somehow they are persuading the bashful, the tuneless, the self-conscious--nay, even those who should be actively dissuaded from song--to sing.
THERE AREN'T VERY many good Korean cookbooks; probably the best one is Flavours of Korea, by husband-and-wife team Kim and Marc Millon (Andre Deutsch Ltd., $17.95). The book is unavailable pending a reprint, but you can see excerpts on the Millons' Web site, http://www.quaypress.com/korea/. (The Millons are bigwig foodies and have written more than a dozen books, including the Frommer's Food Lover's Companions for France and Italy.)
Flavours of Korea documents a trip the couple made in search of the foods and home of Marc's grandmother, Halmoni, a 1924 picture bride who traveled to Hawaii from an outlying area of Pusan, Korea. The book and the Web site--full of memories of the trip, reminiscences of Halmoni, and recipes--are quite touching, and also quite useful. "The key to making really good cucumber kimchi," advise the Millons, "is to pour boiling water over the cucumbers after they have been salted. This, for some reason, keeps them really crisp and crunchy for a longer period."
(Stuffed Cucumber Kimchi)
* 6 cucumbers (about 8 inches long)
* 3 tablespoons coarse sea salt
* 6 scallions, chopped
* 3 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed, and finely chopped
* 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled, crushed, and finely chopped
* 1 small Korean radish (or daikon) cut into fine matchsticks
* 4 tablespoons ground red pepper
* 1 tablespoon sugar
Cut the cucumbers in half (if small) or in thirds (if large). Stand each segment on its end and cut a cross down its length almost to the base (but do not separate). Rub the salt into the cucumbers. Cover and set aside for about two hours (the time this takes depends on factors such as humidity, moisture level in the cucumbers, and the like). They should be wilted but still have a "snap" when bent. Wipe off the excess salt, then pour boiling water over the cucumbers. Rinse well and refresh immediately in cold water.
Mix together the scallions, garlic, ginger, radish, red-pepper powder, and sugar. Wipe the cucumbers dry and stuff the mixture into the slits in each. Pack the stuffed cucumbers into sterile jars and cover tightly. Allow to stand in a cool, dark place for at least a day, then transfer to a refrigerator. Serve well chilled. The pickles will last for at least a few days, but they are at their best before they go soft.
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