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Sticky white rice, similar to Japanese sushi rice, was a good way to combat the soups' mouth-burning effects. The multitude of vegetable side dishes served complimentary with main courses -- marinated bean sprouts, shredded white radish with seaweed, bamboo shoots, and broccoli with a yellow sesame-flavored sauce -- also worked as a cooling system. Traditional kim chee (cabbage fermented with plenty of hot pepper), of course, performed the opposite function, heating up the palate with its piquant sauce.
Bibim naeng myon, cold noodles with beef, was accompanied by Kyung Ju's handiest tool, and I'm not talking about chopsticks. Scissors were required to cut the long, tan-colored vermicelli into manageable lengths. The noodles, sticky and chewy, were bathed in a potent gochu jang (chili pepper paste) dressing, and garnished with slices of Korean radish, cucumber, and pear. Oddly, the main ingredient -- beef -- was absent, and the language barrier prevented us from ascertaining exactly what had happened to it. But the flavors of this recipe were so vibrant we hardly missed it.
We got plenty of meat with an order of bul-kogi, one of Korea's most popular dishes and my favorite part of the meal ($12.95). Koreans are descended from a Mongolian people that migrated from Manchuria, and this beef barbecue is one of the few culinary influences that can be traced back to the Mongols. Chunks of boneless lean meat were marinated in garlic, then grilled to a delicious medium-rare. Two dips -- a rich soybean paste and a sesame oil-black pepper combo -- provided additional flavor, and crisp romaine leaves were used to wrap the hot beef as it came off the grill. Though Kyung Ju, like most modern restaurants, doesn't sear its meat over wood, the waiters do their best to comply with bulgogi tradition: Our server cooked the beef over an open gas grill that he set upon our table. He also barbecued pork for us in this fashion, cutting the long, thin marinated strips with those useful scissors before throwing the meat on the grill.
Purists from metropolitan areas on both coasts -- where burgeoning Korean populations have brought an explosion of barbecue restaurants -- might be disappointed that these grills aren't actually built into the tables and that they don't have a place for vegetables; more traditional, rounded grills allow the meat juices to collect in a trough, providing a tasty cooking liquid for leafy greens. But that letdown might be somewhat assuaged by the fact that the selection of meats offered for grilling includes beef tongue, as well as more conventional fare such as short ribs, chicken, and the aforementioned beef and pork.
Diners in a rush may want to have the kitchen prepare the meat dishes, as the tabletop process can take awhile. Those who don't have time for leisure might also avoid sitting in one of Kyung Ju's booths, which are paneled floor to ceiling with rice paper; though the privacy was wonderful, it was sometimes difficult to get our server's attention. Once we got that attention, however, the thoughtfulness was unquestionable: Our desserts, an order of glazed bananas ($5.95) and one of glazed boniato ($6.95), were brought with a bowl of ice cubes. The idea was to cool off the freshly caramelized pieces of fruit and tuber before popping them in our mouths. The banana slices were firm and sweet under the crisp sugar, but the boniato wedges, like candy-coated French fries, were certainly the more unusual treat.
I'm not in the habit of looking up old boyfriends, but I did locate Steve, listed under his Korean name, in an on-line directory the other day. And I'm strongly considering e-mailing him, just to tell him how, for a few hours, I was transported back to his kitchen, watching him prepare lunch and wondering exactly what was in those sauces. Thinking that of Kyung Ju, at least, his mother would approve.
400 NE 167th St, North Miami Beach; 947-3838. Open Monday -- Saturday from 11:00 a.m. until midnight; Saturday 4:00 p.m. until midnight.