King's And I

From the King's treasure chest: Pork bulgogi
Tony Nelson
King's Fine Korean Cuisine
1051 E. Moore Lake Rd., Fridley

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!

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.)  

Well, I hope that didn't scare you off, because Korean food is one of the world's great cuisines, and while the food at King's is along the home-style and comfort-food area of the Korean spectrum, there are a number of marvelous dishes here. And most are in the attractive $9 to $13 price range--which I know is exactly what you want to spend, what with all the Internet shopping you do once you've drunk-dialed all the critics.

The seafood pancake--a thick, eggy disk brimming with tender pieces of squid, imitation crab, and scallions--is a marvelous appetizer. Dredge pieces through the thick sesame and soy dressing that accompanies it and you've got perfect bar food: sweet, salty, springy. It costs $10.95 and, like most dishes at King's, is sized to share; it would serve one as an entrée, or as many as four as an appetizer. (Oddly, the mandoo, meat-filled dumplings akin to pierogi, were one of the few things I didn't like at King's. I found them bland to the point of disinterest, so I say skip them.) The galbi ($12.95) make a nice meaty appetizer, if you're looking for that: They are thinly sliced cross sections of short ribs cut to resemble doughnuts of meat and bone, then marinated and grilled till they come out sweet and meaty, like a jerky.

I have a hard time picking my favorite entrée, but every friend I've had up to the place fell head over heels for the pork bulgogi ($12.95), sliced pork marinated in a sweet and nutty sauce that reminded me of both mole and Thai peanut sauce. The "special rice" section of the menu yields a lot of treasures. Bi bim bab ($8.95) is different here from what I've had before--it's a room-temperature beef salad served with rice, and the rice is set in a sizzling hot pot. You can mix the beef, vegetables, and accompanying chile sauce all together right away, which makes the whole thing hot and stew-like, or let the rice sizzle in there for a while till there's a delicious charred-rice crust to peel away and eat. Hoye dup bab is delightful: It's basically the Korean version of chirashi sushi, a variety of slices of sushi-grade fish (usually tuna, salmon, and a wild card, like yellowtail) on a bed of rice, served, of course, with chile sauce. Again, mix it all together into a stew, or don't--it's up to you. Either way, at $11.95 it seems like such a bargain you feel like you're getting away with something.

Vegetarian options abound, ranging from chewy noodles in black-bean sauce ($8.95) to a kimchi pancake ($10.95) to various tofu and vegetable soups, which I cannot say enough good things about. The Korean soybean paste hot pot with vegetables (#53, $8.95) is delicious because of the haunting, winey taste the bean paste imparts--as if the soup were built from a rare and salty fruit.

The plainer fresh tofu, seafood, and vegetable soup ($8.95) has a clean and simple taste, and a lovely forthright aspect. I got the whole croaker ($14.95) one night and don't recommend it--I thought it was a little greasy and past perfect. But it came with a small bowl of a soup I might not have ordered otherwise and that was a winner: pork kimchi soup (#55, $8.95), which had a thick and savory broth with a piquant edge. It was great. It was so great that it was even great through a cold: This being Minnesota, every time I've been there someone in my party has been sick, and each and every time that person left feeling better.

The most tragic occurrence was when it was me who was sick. Now, when most people are sick, it is but a trivial matter. But when I am, it is truly a cataclysmic event requiring the attention of teams from nearly every branch of our civil defense. I mean, during the dire season in question, I hadn't been out to eat for two straight weeks, thus endangering the spinning of the earth on its axis and such. Finally, a friend took pity on me and drove me to King's, where I had a big bowl of chile-rich soup made with brisket and scallions (yuk gea jang, #56, $8.95), and--I am telling you the truth--I went into that meal feeling like a few ragged bones held together by nothing but a sweaty cardigan, but came out feeling better. Feeling better. Sometimes a trivial phrase, but other times the most you can hope for on this cold, cruel earth. And let me tell you this, darlings, without a few rock-solid reliables in your corner to make you feel better, the laughing matters simply aren't.

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King's Fine Korean Cuisine

1051 E. Moore Lake Road
Fridley, MN 55432


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