Korean food is probably one of the more recent Asian cuisines for which I have acquired a taste. Early on it was primarily Japanese and Thai food, adding in Vietnamese, authentic Chinese and Malaysian and only in the last couple of years did I start to explore my way into the interesting and somewhat daunting place that Korean food occupies. Perhaps part of the problem was that I didn't really have a reliable guide to help me navigate the tricky spots where an unfamiliar flavor could result in either a giant bear hug or instant revulsion. Or perhaps part of the problem was that Korean food was so under-represented in the Akron area that I just couldn't find a good place to go exploring.
Whatever the problem, I feel like I am finally at a spot where not only can I embrace new and bold flavors, but I can help be that guide to other Korean neophytes as well. This was exactly what happened when a group of my foodie friends decided to go to a restaurant that I have written about once before, Ha Ahn. In my previous visit, I had experienced probably the best bibimbap dolsot that I had ever eaten. When Ha Ahn was suggested as the place that the other diners wanted to try, I was definitely in.
We arrived at 1 PM on a Saturday to find the restaurant nicely packed, which was the complete opposite of my first visit. Fortunately, our party of five was quickly seated at a table by the front door where we could spread out a little bit. Just like last time we started out with the steamed dumplings, the Mandoo and just like last time, they were fresh and delicious. Check out my previous entry if you want a more thorough description and actual pictures.
After finishing our dumplings, the always present banchan were brought out to the table. During my last visit, two Japanese bento boxes were presented to us, each containing four varieties of banchan. This time around,
six varieties were presented, each in its own dish. While the bento boxes were definitely convenient for the server to carry, the small individual bowls were much more commonplace in other Korean restaurants at which I have eaten. Starting at noon and working clockwise, you have small dried fish in a spicy chili sauce, steamed broccoli in a spicy chili sauce, baby bok choi done in a "kimchee" style, actual kimchee, gobo or burdock root that has been treated with a sweet and sour flavor combination, and finally in the middle a mushroom and carrot salad. The whole point of banchan is to add a variety of flavors and textures to the main entree. You can use them as a condiment or simply as single mouthfuls between bites of your entree.
Speaking of entrees, I wasn't feeling in an exceptionally spicy mood today, so when I saw that Ha Ahn offered a thick rice noodle soup with seafood called Kalgooksoo, I decided to go with that. My only concern was that it was a soup made with homemade anchovy paste. While I don't mind a mild anchovy flavor in my food, I'm not a huge fan of it either; I needn't have worried.
While our food did take quite a bit of time to get out to us, we passed the time by talking and sampling the banchan that had been brought to the table. Here was a shot of my soup when it finally arrived:
The minute this bowl was set down in front of me, the smell of anchovy gently wafted up and tickled my olfactory senses. It wasn't an overwhelming smell and taste of anchovy, but a gentle and subtle use, much like the Japanese use dried benito shavings in miso soup. In fact, if you are at all familiar with miso soup, then the flavor or anchovy in Ha Ahn's kalgooksoo was quite a close match. While the picture of this dish on the "ordering wall" did show some clams, what I found were clams, mussels and one perfectly cooked, head-on shrimp:
I don't know that I've ever been served a head-on shrimp anywhere, but after peeling the shell, I was rewarded with a sweet and delicious crustacean. Everything about this soup was quite refreshing. The noodles, close to an udon noodle in Japanese cooking, were fat and plump and made for some excellent slurping. Besides the seafood in the soup, the bowl was abundant with thin slices of cucumber, carrots, onions, and mushrooms. At $7.95 for this giant bowl, it was definitely an entire meal. Due to the fact that I had split an appetizer, I only managed to eat about half of my soup. You can bet that the other half came home with me for a later meal.
One of the other diners decided to order a dish for her husband and let us sample it before boxing it up. Pork bulgogi is a dish where pork strips are marinated in a spicy Korean chili paste before being cooked and is generally served with steamed white rice. Here was Ha Ahn's version:
This was absolutely delicious. It was spicy, savory and just a touch sweet. If it hadn't been for the fact that I already had an enormous bowl of soup in front of me and this was supposed to be my friend Steve's lunch, I probably could've powered through this entire platter. The little white specks you see dotting the top of the plate are sesame seeds, which as I have learned over the years is a common Korean ingredient. The pork bulgogi is a nice jumping off point if you've never had Korean food and want to start exploring flavors. It's spicy without being overly so and the cut of meat is simply pork.
By the time we had finished our food, boxed up the leftovers, and paid our check, it was close to 3 PM and the restaurant was now officially empty. As we got up to leave, the small staff thanked us for coming and wished us well as we walked through their front door. I know, gentle reader, that Korean food can be a little intimidating if you aren't familiar with the flavors. I can assure you though that Ha Ahn is definitely the place to go exploring when the urge strikes. While my only real gripe was that I wish it were closer to Akron, I also don't mind making the 45 minute trek for food that is this good. And if you still feel uncomfortable without someone there to show you the culinary ropes, invite me along; I'm happy to work for food.