Seoul Kitchen

My first boyfriend was Korean, and I think I fell in love with his culture's cuisine as much as I did with him. While the other kids had lunch at Burger King or a pizza joint, Steve and I would dash over to his house, where he'd pull all manner of mysterious sauces from the refrigerator and whip up exotic stir-fries. Even in high school I was interested in the preparation of food, and I'd pester him to tell me what was in those sauces. "I don't know --they're my mother's secret recipes," he'd explain.

Unfortunately, his mother didn't like me -- I was a gringa, or the Koreans' equivalent -- so I never did learn her tricks. But knowing a little bit more about the food now, I can guess that she was a pretty traditional cook and I can piece together her fragrant ingredients. Sesame oil. Soybean paste. Red hot chilies. And loads of garlic. All the enticing flavors I recently rediscovered at Kyung Ju.

A two-year-old Korean and Chinese restaurant in North Miami Beach, Kyung Ju originally served Korean and Japanese food, an interesting arrangement given the country's history of being invaded by the Japanese. (The Japanese actually played a significant role in the development of Korea's cuisine. Accompanied by Portuguese missionaries who had had contact with the New World Spanish explorers, Japanese armies brought the all-important chili pepper to the Land of the Morning Calm at the end of the Sixteenth Century.) But regardless of what second cuisine the restaurant is listing on the menu, it's an afterthought. Korea is the culinary star here, evident in the spicy soups and casseroles, the numerous cured-vegetable side dishes, the marinated beef and pork cooked to order on a tabletop grill.

If there were any part of Dade that could politically incorrectly be labeled Chinatown, Kyung Ju would be located in the middle of it. This slightly bedraggled portion of 167th Street just east of I-95 is rife with Asian markets, bakeries, restaurants, even a homemade-noodle shop. But while the restaurant's Easternized pancake house design helps it blend in, its ethnic orientation allows it to stand out; since Mandarin House closed last year, Kyung Ju is one of only two Korean establishments I know of in Dade. (Shilla, a neighborhood favorite, seems firmly ensconced on NW Second Street just west of 79th Avenue.) Kyung Ju's chef-owners Jum Soo Choy and wife Myung Choy are from Seoul. They've lived in Miami for five years; before opening his own restaurant here, Jum Soo spent three years as a chef at Mandarin House. For six years before that, he owned his own restaurant, also called Mandarin House, in L.A.

Kyung Ju's eighteen-category menu can be confusing. Names of dishes are written out in Korean characters, phonetic Korean, English, and, in the case of items such as kung pao chicken and beef with broccoli, Chinese characters (which indicate the nationality of the dish). If you're unfamiliar with the food, as many of us are in Korean-deprived Miami, your best bet is to ask the staff for recommendations. Though not all staffers speak English, all are happy to help novices avoid surprises like boiled tripe and cold jellyfish, flavors that might seem unappealing to Western tongues.

Which is not to say you'll be eating the Korean version of chop suey. Even the most familiar-sounding dishes carry an artful, exotic punch. An appetizer of tofu with hot sauce, for example, comprised six large triangles of velvety steamed bean curd doused with a composition of garlic, chili peppers (seeds and all), and soy sauce ($6.95). The sauce was so arresting we each paused, chopsticks in the air, for a moment of silence after the first mouthful. Then dove for our mugs of hot tea. According to Copeland Marks, author of The Korean Kitchen, how coolly one suffers the chili pepper is the sole measuring tool of machismo in Korea. If that's truly the case, then tofu with hot sauce informed me I'm not always the man I think I am.

We continued to explore the relationship between machismo and masochism with a pair of casseroles. Meant to be consumed as a meal, these soupy stews are also hearty when shared as a starter; even denjang gike, boiled soybean paste, the smaller of the two, was big enough to split. The thick and somewhat grainy broth, reminiscent of miso soup, had a peppery bite and contained chopped zucchini, minced onions, chunks of mild tofu, and plump shelled oysters. A-koo soup, starring monkfish, was downright spicy, red pepper adrift in the stock ($12.95). Tofu, a couple of shrimp, bok choy, and slices of mild, boiled white radish accented the bony hunks of monkfish, which looked unappetizing but were, apart from a slight chewiness, very tasty. (Corvina, or chogi, a popular fish in Korea, is also available in a soup and may be more familiar to South Floridians, given our Latin American influences.) A warning should be served along with spoons with this one: The red pepper tends to sink, causing the broth to become even more stimulating as it diminishes.

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