Korean food is the dark horse among Asian cuisines in America, just as Korean culture is the dark horse among Asian cultures.
But why? The US fought a war in Korea and maintains a military presence there. Korean immigrants and their descendants are a visible, vital presence. Your average culturally adventurous American lives and breathes chow mein, ramen, karaoke, kung fu, and has either been to Thailand or knows someone who has. But Korea? At best, a feeble whisper: "Umm, kimchee?"
Darla went with us to Casserole House in Oakland's Temescal District Koreatown. Serenely rectilinear and spic-and-span, this two-month-old retreat one wall away from blaring Telegraph is softly lit, its long-stemmed orchids and sea urchin-shaped paper lanterns cool counterpoints to the bouncy ambient bop-bop of Korean pop — K-pop — and the huge illuminated color photographs of steaming entrées running the length of one wall. Darla is a food-industry insider, a marketing consultant to national produce boards. Earlier in her career, she was a kingpin in the development of both squeeze-bottle mayonnaise and salad-in-a-bag. But when our server set out the dozen wallet-sized plates of side dishes called panchan — jet-black boiled soybeans, pewtery dried anchovies, steamed bean sprouts and broccoli, pickled peppers, fishcake strips, and yes, several kinds of kimchee — ash-blond Darla seized a pair of metal chopsticks from the coffin-shaped box of sticks and spoons on our table and sat grinning but eye-dartingly, lip-chewingly ignorant, the way a kitten might regard a Christmas tree.
Served with every meal at no extra charge, the panchan snapped and sleeked between the teeth, bursting into a carnival of flavors and textures, many of them blazingly new to us. Fat red-flecked fermented daikon wedges, hot-hot-hot but apple-crunchy. Fishcake strips, wrinkly-floppy: sweet. Owner-chef Suk Lee makes kimchee every day; its hot-sour intensity sings. Everyone's favorite was the soybeans, kongjaban, plump pellets vouchsafing a sugar/sesame/soy sauce perfume. Tiny bites of panchan were pyrotechnic breaks from the eggy softness of our pa jeon, a thick pancake studded with green onion, carrots, and chewy morsels that turned out to be squid chunks, unmentioned in the menu's description of this dish.
Vegetable and tofu entrées complement a menu packed with fleshy entrées including barbecued bacon, pan-fried croaker, and "spicy cow intestine sautéed with vegetables." A soft-tofu version is among the house-specialty casseroles: junggol, cooked to burbling perfection atop tableside burners. But even these apparently vegetable dishes will include little animal surprises unless vegetarians announce themselves to their servers right off. Fish heads inform the sunset-colored spicy broth in which many entrées bask — it's Lee's specialty, learned from her mother long ago in Korea. Darla adored what she called "its richness that keeps changing in the mouth and just goes on and on forever." On request, vegetarians are served meatless dishes, boiled-potato panchan, and a fleshless, brightly pure-tasting seaweed-based broth that lent a bright purity to our ddok gook, clear soup swimming with lacy egg and the chewy, snowy-white, pounded-glutinous-rice ovals known sometimes as rice petals but here as rice cakes. It was palate-cleansingly and plaintively comforting.
And it arrived in a sink-sized bowl. Ditto our bibimbab: the staple that traditionally features beef, vegetables, and sunny-side-up egg over rice, in our case with tofu cubes and juicy mushrooms instead of beef, but boldly hearty nonetheless. The pancake, categorized on the menu as an appetizer, was a foot across — big enough to comprise a whole meal. Served in a wok, the beef-dumpling casserole — its thick-skinned egg-and-meat-stuffed pouches simmering in that sunset broth alongside clear noodles, rice cakes, and at least four kinds of vegetable — fed four. Especially when you consider the free extras — panchan, steamed short-grain rice, tea, and the house-brewed rice-barley-pine-nut dessert-drink called sikhye — the portions here are staggeringly generous. Order the number of dishes that would seem normal somewhere else — say, one dish per diner — and you'll go home with leftovers.
Lee says that when she first came to the US in 1970, she loved to cook, but because Korean food was even more obscure to American palates back then, "I started with a hamburger shop in San Rafael. Then a Korean soup joint in San Francisco, then another in Santa Clara. Then more." She says that to avoid boredom she sells her businesses, when they become successful, to trusted employees, then starts something else: "I like to try new things." Like their American counterparts, junggol are traditionally enjoyed by families at home. "It's unusual," Lee says, "to find the casserole in restaurants." At Casserole House, attentive servers revisit diners' tables again and again to offer extras, explain things, ask if everything's all right.
And it was, on both our first visit and our next, during which a potato-mung-bean pancake proved a new favorite. ("It's a latke!" Tuffy proclaimed.) The biggest surprise of all was eight-year-old Molly, whose dad warned us that she "doesn't like hot things." But even while surrounded by blander options, after her first taste of fiery casserole Molly kept digging in. Between big slugs of tea she couldn't explain why except to say that she liked it. She couldn't resist it. Sweating, she wanted more.
That's a testament to the kind of hotness this is. Rather than simply assault the mouth, blunting its receptors, peppers prepared properly bring other flavors alive, suddenly spotlighting subtleties you might otherwise miss: Mushrooms are heartwrenchingly earthy, onions electrically sweet. It's still hot — so, so hot — but it's the burning road that brings you to a higher place.