The winner of the Miss Popularity crown at our table’s “Korea’s Got Cooking Talent!” contest was Tofu Kimchi Bokum, quite another kettle of fish — or rather, pork and hot cabbage. And what pork. The thin, tender slices are irresistibly seasoned — with what, I haven’t a clue, but it certainly brings out the best in the pig meat. The slices mingle in a riotous stir-fry with spicy kimchi, while around the edges of the bowl stand sentries of thick triangles of firm, unadorned tofu, to cool the fires, or to toss into the mixture as a neutral balance to the kimchi.
Hot and Spicy Galbi Tang is a soup with ultra-tender braised short-rib meat (and loose bones) with cabbage shreds in a rich, meaty, deeply satisfying broth. It’s moderately spicy but won’t blow your head off. (Perhaps they gentled it a bit for a table with only one Korean-American.) This is fabulous comfort food if your comforts include a little piquancy — warming on a cold night, cooling on a hot one. If you want to cool it down or fill it out a bit, you’ve got that bowl of rice on your table to mix in.
We all wished for bigger, better shrimp in Shrimp Japchae with Korean Leeks, rather than the small, dull-flavored specimens that couldn’t hold their own in this fierce-flavored treatment. They were pan-fried with an army of thin-sliced scallions in a spicy, savory red-brown sauce, mingling with thin, tender cellophane noodles.
One of my favorite Korean dishes takes some instruction to eat properly. Bibimbap arose as a home dish to absorb a heap of leftover scraps, including rice, a sort of Korean Sunday supper. It’s pretty much the equivalent of Chinese fried rice and is pronounced like a jazz drummer’s final rim shot — bee BIM bop. In the more elaborate Dol Sat Bibimbap, the mixture comes in a hot-stone or regular stoneware casserole filled with rice that’s crisped around the edges, along with julienned vegetables, Asian mushroom slices, and perhaps some bits of meat. At the last minute, a lightly fried or poached egg is plopped on top — and here’s where the instruction comes in — which you stir in along with plenty of Korean chili sauce (which comes bottled on the table).
I have to admit my favorite Dol Sat Bibimbap was at the famed Brothers BBQ in SF (which that barbecue-blessed city has nicknamed “Seoul Brothers”), considered by Koreans to be, perhaps, the best Korean restaurant in the U.S. Theirs was delivered dangerously sizzling, and the waitress stirred up the rice with a wooden paddle, to dislodge all the crackly bits, then rapidly stirred in the requisite (very ample) amount of bottled Korean hot sauce. At the end, she broke a raw egg on top and stirred it in to cook lightly in the still-sizzling rice. Wow, love at first bite!
At Do Re Mi, less of the rice is crackly, there’s a smaller assortment of ingredients, and you have to stir in the precooked egg and the hot sauce yourself. (And the hot sauce is a different brand, one that’s less complex than at Brothers.) The dish is still very tasty, comparable to the version at the popular Buga a few blocks away. But remember, you must stir in hot sauce, as much as you think you can handle, to bring the concoction to full, vibrant life.
At the end, Do Re Mi’s generosity is so complete, it even includes a subtle little dessert, a teacup filled with persimmon juice dotted with pine nuts. How sweet!
Our gluttonous review meal (which included over a week’s worth of terrific takeout for one) cost all of $32 per person, including drinks, tip, tax. A normal couple or group of eaters can figure on about $20 per person for dinner, tout compris. (The lunch specials, which typically include rice, include dumpling, salad, and soft drink for $10 or under — plus banchen — before tax.)
Even more important: “I think this is now my favorite Korean restaurant,” said Sang, who feels that Buga’s food has lost something as it’s gained popularity. (The management may have changed, too.) The rest of us readily agreed on Do Re Mi’s virtues. This is more relaxing than dealing with the heat, the meats, and the DIY tensions of tabletop barbecue. Yes, you can buy BBQ here — but the rest of the menu, with its rich, spicy soups and stews, is where the real treasures lie. And they are treasures.■
Do Re Mi House
★★★ 1/2 (Very Good to Excellent)
8199 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, suite M (at Mercury Street), Kearny Mesa, 858-565-2085; no website (email: email@example.com)
HOURS: 11:00 a.m.–midnight daily.
PRICES: Starters, $6–$10; entrées, $9–$17 (some dishes $27 for two). Lunch combos, $8–$10 until 2:30 p.m. (except holidays).
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Wide variety of traditional Korean dishes (including six BBQ choices cooked in kitchen, rather than at the table), many spicy, served with immense array of free side dishes. Soft drinks, teas, Korean beers, and rice wine (soju).
PICK HITS: Steamed meat dumplings; spicy chicken wings; grilled black cod; Tofu Kimchi Bokum (stir-fried pork with kimchi and tofu); Hot and Spicy Galbi Tang (short-rib soup). Good bets: King dumplings (pot stickers); Squid Bokum; Agu Jjim (steamed anglerfish with bean sprouts, for two); Budae Chigae (soup with kimchi, ham, sausage, if available).
NEED TO KNOW: Given the large portions and numerous side dishes, one dish per person (appetizer or main) should suffice in a shared meal; entrées are generally more interesting. Hospitable service, sufficient English spoken. Often crowded; reserve to avoid a wait. One front table reserved for disabled patrons. About ten vegan dishes (mainly tofu variations).