10 Insider Tips to Eating at an Authentic Korean Restaurant
Skip the meat jun and try the traditional dishes instead.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Korean restaurants can be intimidating if you’re not Korean. How much should you order? Which meats should you grill first? What IS that? Even if you think you know what you want, the same dish at two different restaurants might be spelled completely differently on the menu, since there’s no standard way of writing Korean in English.
But fear not: We ventured to Sorabol, the Hale ‘Aina gold winner for Best Overall Korean, with some Korean food experts to get an insider’s look at how to order, what to eat and how to act. We turned to Diane Seo, editor of our sister aio company Frolic Hawai‘i, and Myong Choi, a writer for Frolic (who recently spent a month eating his way through Korea). You may remember their popular blog post, “Where real Koreans eat Korean food,” published on Nonstop Honolulu in 2011.
Here are their tips.
1. Skip the Meat Jun.
While Sorabol offers an extensive menu that will please a range of diners, it really shines in its more traditional dishes, says Seo. Some of our favorites are yookhae (raw ground beef with egg), eundaegu chim (black cod with vegetables) and al chi-ke (fish-egg stew). “If you’re Korean, this is a no-brainer,” Seo says about stew, a staple with every meal.
In traditional Korean cuisine, “meat was kind of a luxury,” says Choi. So go for more fish, veggies and fermented foods.
These traditional Korean dishes are a hit at Sorabol. From left to right: eundaegu chim, yookhae, al chi-ke.
2. Enjoy your banchan.
As long as you keep eating, these complimentary side dishes keep coming, like a bottomless bowl of tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant. Kim chee cucumber, fishcake, cabbage, bean sprouts, potato salad: The side dishes may accompany every meal, but they rotate based on availability and seasonality. If there’s one particular side dish you’re craving, ask for it, says Choi. The restaurant may not have enough for all diners, but, if you ask, they might accommodate you.
3. Ask for the server’s recommendation.
If you still don’t know what to order, ask for the server’s recommendation. Ordering her pick will show that you’re genuinely interested in her opinion, which might win you some favor. But don’t order too many choices—if you do, you better eat everything, Choi says.
4. Eat from the same plates as everyone else.
None of those small plates. Sharing food is about community, so don’t worry about other people’s germs.
5. Keep an eye on your party’s drinks.
If you’re drinking tea or soju, refill others’ cups when they’re low, and they’ll do the same for you (don’t fill your own). You should serve the oldest person first and, when they reciprocate, receive your drink with both hands.
6. Don’t over season.
Most dishes already come with the right mix of spices and flavors. For yakiniku, put a little salt, pepper and sesame oil on your meat. The restaurant will bring you any other sauce you may need.
7. Grill the premium, unseasoned cuts of meat first.
That will keep your palate (and your grill) clean. Then cook the marinated ones. Eat your rice last—the crispy bits of beef scraped from the grill will make for a nice fried-ricelike dish.
8. Order yookgae jang to cure a hangover.
There’s a dish for practically every ailment, whether you’re trying to kick a cold or cure a headache, so ask the server for her opinion. In general, “Korean food is pretty healthy,” Seo says, since it doesn’t include much fat or focus on meat, and it’s full of vegetables. Spicy foods are also good for you.
9. Learn to say a few phrases in Korean.
Mueoseul gwonhasigetseumnikka? (What do you recommend?), Mool chom jooseyo? (May I have some water please?), maeu masisseotseuyo (very delicious) and gomapseumnida (thank you) might come in handy.
10. Don’t expect dessert.
Or anything that has to be baked. Most cooking is done in a pot. Your meal will, however, finish with a sweet cup of cold, cinnamony-tasting rice soup called shik hae, which helps with digestion and cleanses the palate.
Sorabol, 805 Ke‘eaumoku St., 947-3113, sorabolhawaii.com