I was hungry in that cranky sort of way you get when you've skipped lunch to save a little dough because the economy's tanking and you're worried about next month's rent. I was faced with four perfectly amiable people who were as hungry as I was plus a toddler who was getting less sanguine by the moment. What we needed was a quiet little venue with a warm welcome and food that would fill our bellies and maybe even please our taste buds.
Korean food might not spring to mind when a little culinary succor is in order, but that's only if you're not well versed in the cuisine's luscious textures, bracing flavors, and soothing soups, stews, and noodles. At Shik Do Rock, a fairly nondescript Korean restaurant along the busy stretch of Solano Avenue in Albany, the delicious aromas of garlic, ginger, scallions, chili peppers, and sesame oil stimulate the senses and deliver a salubrious sense of well-being. This friendly family-run enterprise is a good place to find out what's beyond the barbecue.
One unique aspect of Korean cuisine is the wide variety of banchan (side dishes) that accompany every meal. Within minutes of your order, saucers piled with shards, chunks, and shreds of edible exotica cover the table. Banchan comes in two basic varieties, namul (lightly cooked vegetables dressed in sesame oil, vinegar, and other condiments) and kimchi (fermented vegetables spiked with chili peppers, scallions, and spices). Kimchi is of course a culinary experience unto itself, an ancient preparation of brined Napa cabbage that over the course of the centuries has evolved itself into nearly two hundred variations. Shik Do Rock's classic cabbage kimchi is bright and lush with plenty of after-bite, while the ggakduki (a gingery cubed-daikon variation) is even snarkier. The namul dishes include refreshing mini-salads of bean sprouts, yam noodles, and shredded potatoes and zucchini; there's also a saucer of ultra-briny odeng (fish cakes) for the true connoisseur.
The meal proper might begin with pah jun, a thick, savory frittata-like pancake studded with chopped green onions. At Shik Do Rock this exemplary crisp-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside cake is ribboned with bits of prawn and cut into rectangles for easy dipping into peppery soy sauce. Other starters include goon man du, a tender, tasty Korean version of fried potstickers filled with spiced ground beef, and a nice hot crunchy array of sweet potato, carrot, broccoli, zucchini, and prawn tempura.
Korean entrées tend to be rice- or noodle-based, often in the form of soup. Kal gook soo is a particularly comforting cauldron of squid, shrimp, and thick, tender wheat-flour noodles, submerged in a simmering broth with the edgy flavor of anchovy. Another soup, dduk man du gook, features big tender juicy dumplings, streaks of simmered egg white, and gelatinous ovals of dduk, steamed rice cake ... an acquired taste. Kimchi jigae deliciously showcases that pickle-y fermented cabbage in a rich, spicy quasi-goulash studded with beef and vegetables. And the dol sot bi bim bab offers a nice bit of showbiz: a deep stone pot is brought to the table hot and steaming, then the server tosses the sizzling ingredients — greens, veggies, chunks of beef, and a plenitude of creamy rice — topped with an egg sunny side up. While the result isn't as culinarily exciting as the visual presentation, it's satisfying enough on a chilly evening.
Other dishes reflect the Korean peninsula's proximity to sea, strait, and ocean. The sautéed octopus entrée offers up chewy bits of meat and tentacle in a perfunctory sweet-and-spicy onion-pepper sauce: nothing to plan your evening around. But the salted mackerel is an unlikely pleasure: three thick filets of briny, salty, chewy seafood that get better with every bite. And for toddlers and other unadventurous types there's always chicken bulgoki, an inoffensive yet perfectly tender example of boneless barbecued chicken.
There isn't a whole lot for vegetarians to feast on at Shik Do Rock. Among the starters are mashed potato croquettes and mixed-vegetable tempura; udon (Japanese noodles) are available au naturel with a bit of broth. Sautéed tofu and vegetables are prepared with oyster sauce. And only one main dish, dduk gook (soup with egg, scallions, and sliced rice cake), is meat-free.
Soju, Korea's most popular alcoholic beverage (it's been distilled from a variety of grains — rice, potatoes, tapioca — since the 14th century), is available in the form of barley-based Chamjinisulro, an especially crisp, clean example of the genre. Other boozing options include San Sa Chun, a tart Korean rice wine flavored with hawthorn berries, and Yokaichi shochu out of Japan, a light yet slightly earthy alternative to sake that goes well with Korea's sharp, spicy flavors. (Four kinds of sake are available as well.) The perfunctory California wine list — two cabs, three chablis, two chardonnays — is supplemented with Hite and OB, two Korean lagers with all the depth and complexity of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The dessert menu is brief: mochi. If Japanese sticky rice balls filled with ice cream don't float your boat, you might want to head up the street to the Royal Ground coffeehouse for a cookie or a piece of pie instead. Or go the traditional route with a juicy piece of fruit from Happy Produce at 1240 Solano. It's a bright, fresh, palate-cleansing way to conclude such a stimulating meal.
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