When I was in college I went on an overseas study program to Korea and took language classes and lived with a family for a semester. I look back on it as a formative event in my life and, because it was my first trip outside the country, I was a total sponge, soaking up the sights, the sounds and the tastes of a place completely foreign to my experience up to that point. And yet I found the people as warm, kind, funny and accepting of me as any I'd met on this side of the Pacific.
So when I get to craving the smells and tastes that will conjure up that sense of discovery and familiarity, I head for Bewon Korean Restaurant. Having tried many Korean places here and in other cities, I find Bewon to be the most authentic representation of the Korea that I remember. Though I've only been there for lunch, which is extremely reasonably priced, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it for dinner. And its elegant, understated decor serves as a perfect foil for the hearty flavors of this cuisine.
Mandu (above), the Korean version of pot stickers, are a ubiquitous item whether you're in a tiny village cafe where farmers gather for their midday meal or a high-end restaurant in Seoul. You can usually get them steamed (my preference but hard to find here) or fried. This version is pan-fried and filled with sweet potato noodle, tofu, bean sprouts, cabbage, onions, scallions, beef and pork and is a great starter for a meal.
The soon doobu chi-ge is a hearty, deeply flavorful stew that brings out both the subtlety and spiciness of Korean food. The soft tofu gives it textural interest, while the meat (we chose seafood) adds heft and flavor. It comes with a side dish of rice, which you can have separately or stir into the soup to make it more of a main dish. This would be the ideal dish to have before taking a hike through the mountains that Koreans are so fond of doing.
But my favorite dish by far is namul bibimbap, which consists of seven seasoned vegetables and an egg that is served in a bowl with a specially blended mild red pepper paste, a side bowl of rice and a small portion of their vegetable soup. Each vegetable in the bowl carries a certain flavor of sweetness or smokiness or tartness that, when mixed with the egg, rice and pepper paste, makes an explosion of flavors in your mouth with every bite.
In addition, small plates of various sauteed or pickled vegetables are brought to the table, including kimchi, the traditional Korean spicy pickled cabbage that every household in Korea preserves in large pots on their rooftops. Bewon must have my host mother's secret recipe, because it's just the way I remember hers tasting. And if you're nervous about trying this cuisine, don't be! Everyone can find something they'll like on this menu, and it's a tremendous value for the quality.
Details: Bewon Korean Restaurant, 1203 NW 23rd Ave. Phone 503-464-9222.