BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
Cambridge isn’t Los Angeles when it comes to Korean food – Harvard Square is not full of restaurants with table-inlaid gas grills stretching as far as the eye can see. It does, however, boast a population that is 2% Korean, 5 times the national average, bearing fruit for those of us who love things that are stuck in jars with salted water and spices and left to ferment for a while. Even if you guess that you are already tasting such things in dining halls, it’s worth wandering to one of three nearby Korean places and seeing what happens when it’s done professionally.
Seoul Food, just north of the Law School on Mass. Ave., is the closest Korean outlet. The menu is small, but high quality; the mildly spiced pork or chicken bulgogi (fried in sesame oil sweetened with honey) is a safe bet. The kimchi – the aforementioned fermented cabbage – is a bit more bland here than at other restaurants, in a potential concession to the nearby student palates. The signature dish here is the bibimbap; meaning “mixed-together rice,” it consists of a variety of vegetables and one’s choice of meat, mixed together with a spicy paste and topped with slivers of cooked egg. The egg is traditionally served fried or raw, and the lack of gooey yolk spurting everywhere makes the dish a bit sad, but the hot rice stuck to the sides of the sizzling stone pot is fun to scrape off.
The main drawback to Seoul Food, in fact, is the service that comes with the bibimbap. The dish doesn’t come mixed up; the idea is that you stir the ingredients together yourself, adding as much hot sauce as you like. The owner of Seoul Food is a matronly type who likes to show you how to stir it, by mixing it up for you; this would be fine, but she invariably waits several minutes after you get the bibimbap until offering assistance; the end result is that you are either chastised for mixing ignorance or subjected to the implication that you have not mixed the ingredients correctly. Perhaps this is one reason why Seoul Food relies on a mandatory service charge rather than tips.
One nearby Korean outpost with gas tables for barbequing food is Central Square’s Koreana. Despite the swanky atmosphere – the place burned down last year, and the owners won the lottery while rebuilding – Koreana appears to rely on the novelty value of gas grills in the tables than the actual food. Kalbi – marinated grilled short ribs that cost upwards of $18 – were a fairly tough and bony rendition, and japchae – stringy potato noodles – were bland and gummy. Given that Korean food is for whatever reason more expensive per unit volume than other kinds of ethnic food in Cambridge, a failure to deliver strong, interesting flavors is more disappointing in that environment.
Shilla in Harvard Square is probably the best nearby Korean option. Their kimchi, served both as an ingredient in dishes and as part of the array of complimentary small plates, or pan chan, that dot the table, is the most pungent and flavorful of any of the three restaurants’ versions. The pan chan also include sticks of tofu that bear an eerie resemblance to vegetarian faux-sausages you can buy in the frozen foods section of most grocery stores. This makes the kimchi gegae – a stew consisting of a thin, slightly salty broth filled with vegetables, kimchi and pork – an excellent choice. The kimchi sticks to the pork and imbues it with all kinds of spicy flavor. Shilla’s mung bean pancake is light and fluffy despite being made of ground mung beans, and the bulgogi dishes are not too sweet.