Restaurateur Steven Han is the young, successful owner of a collection of Japanese restaurants in Seattle, places where cool kids and aficionados eat. He is a sort of Asian Ethan Stowell — about the same age with three restaurants to Stowell's six.
Stowell’s restaurants are all Italian even though he is not explicitly Italian. Similarly, Han’s restaurants (Umi Sake House, Kushibar, and Momiji) are all Japanese, even though he happens to be Korean.
In casual conversation late last year, I asked Han why, being a first-generation Korean-American, he has never attempted to add a Korean restaurant to his empire. Two of his places are in Belltown, one in Capitol Hill. All are polished, efficiently run, and reasonably respect the traditions behind the food they serve.
Paraphrased, he answered, “If I opened a Korean restaurant, I’d want to do it right, without compromising, a place Koreans would be impressed by.” To which he added, “I don’t think Seattle is ready for that.”
Korean food is probably the least messed with of all the cuisines to immigrate to America. Korean restaurants cook for Koreans (and those willing to eat like one), which is why so many of them are in the suburbs around Seattle, where a preponderance of Korean-Americans live.
Not coincidentally, America has been slow to embrace Korean food, and to this day the relationship is defined by segregation. To eat it around here, you have to travel to Lynnwood or Federal Way, forgoing atmosphere and contending with inscrutable menus and sometimes frosty service.
Into this culinary apartheid entered the Kalbi Grill Express, which opened last year on Greenwood Avenue North at North 82nd Street. As its name suggests, it is not a full-service restaurant. The abridged menu is posted on a board behind the counter, where customers order. They can sit at one of about 10 tables or take food to go, which many do.
Kalbi Grill broke several long-standing postulates about Korean restaurants:
- It opened in a non-Korean neighborhood, a non-college neighborhood, throwing itself into an upscale urban mix of locavore bistros, artisan ice cream parlors, gastropubs and wine bars.
- It is not Korean fusion, which is hot right now (Korean-style hot dogs and Korean tacos) as are high-end, Western treatments of Korean food (like Fremont's Revel).
- It does not serve teriyaki (many owners of teriyaki shops are Korean and offer some Korean food on the side) or any food that resembles Japanese, Chinese or Thai food. The menu is not 30 percent Korean, but 100 percent.
- The customer interface, everything from the menu, the website, the ordering system, to the décor and the set-up is modern and familiar. Functionally, it resembles a Chipotle store, which is the point.
Kalbi Grill is a mother-daughter concern. Mother Hye-kyong Lee cooks and runs the kitchen; daughter Jeanna Lee runs the register and all external aspects of the business like the website and media relations. She grew up in the north end and graduated from the University of Washington.
Given its location, the restaurant is not counting on a customer base of Korean immigrants. Rather than water down the food, the Lees started with a very basic menu without too many options, with a mind to add items slowly over time.
Opening Kalbi Grill was “personal,” Jeanna said. “This is the food my brother and I grew up on.”
Personal? Once, Mrs. Lee came out of the kitchen and pulled a bowl of stew away from a customer when she saw him attempt to pour soy sauce into it. She meant it as a caring gesture, although it’s not clear the customer understood it that way. She took the bowl back into the kitchen to add more salt – Korean soups and stews are frequently served under-salted as it’s understood you can add your own at the table (a small crock of rock salt is a common site at a Korean table) – rather than allow her creation to be contaminated with an ingredient not meant to be part of the dish. She returned the doctored bowl a minute later.
The intervention reminded me of the habit of servers in Korean restaurants to cut or mix (without being asked) the food of customers. Cutting meat, mixing a bowl of bibimbap or even feeding a guest, are acts of caring in Korean culture. To Westerners though, the misunderstood gesture can seem presumptuous, a little rude even.
The Lees have owned the building that houses Kalbi Grill for years — Jeanna’s father operated a car repair shop nearby — and rented it out to various merchants over the years with no plans to get into the restaurant business. When the last tenant left (a kebab restaurant), the Lees decided they would become their own tenants and try their luck at taking traditional Korean into the burgeoning fast-casual sector.
Oma Bap in Bellevue, started by a Korean-American from upstate New York, went the same direction a year earlier, building a stylish, fast-casual restaurant around one dish, bibimbap. The same model was successfully used by the Korean franchise Bibigo. Most of its restaurants are in Asia, but it recently opened three bibimbap emporiums in Los Angeles, suggesting there is demand for user-friendly, upmarket bibimbap in certain cities in the U.S.
As a franchise vehicle, bibimbap is a good one — a self-contained, outwardly wholesome meal like a burrito that is easy to compute psychologically. (Last year, a bibimbap food truck opened and abruptly closed in Wallingford despite a steady stream of customers.)
Kalbi Grill is banking on more than bibimbap, selling stews, grilled meat and seafood pancakes, all for about $10. They were inspired by a vacation to Hawaii a few years ago, where Korean food is eaten without fuss in strip malls and food courts alongside pizza and burgers, fully integrated as everyday food. (It is worth pointing out though that casual Korean food in Hawaii has been amended and adulterated to suit local tastes. Perhaps that is the price to pay for true integration.)
The Lees wanted to make no such compromises. Instead they aggressively edited the menu down to the greatest hits. For instance, rather than make dozens of condiments (the appetizer-sized cold dishes called banchan), they whittled it down to six of the most popular: fish cake, bean sprouts, and four varieties of kimchee.
More than a restaurant, they created a gateway for Korean food beginners.
The slow infiltration of Korean food in American culture, its resistance to adaptation, its relative isolation is a puzzle and not likely the result of one or two factors — yes, many Korean-Americans are new immigrants, and yes, the food’s strong flavors can be an acquired taste.
I am inclined to draw a correlation to the cultural concept of han, which is attributed to Koreans as a national trait — a shared value of suffering, oppression, isolation and sadness. Koreans young and old are aware of the country’s sense of han, be it real or perceived.
Over the centuries, Korea has been invaded and occupied by hostile neighbors and remains a harshly divided country in a dormant state of war, reason enough to adopt a fatalistic, sometimes defiant attitude toward life.
While on assignment in Seoul 13 years ago, I happened to stay in the Lotte hotel, a large high-rise favored by business travelers, just as hotel workers went on strike. The demonstration began typically enough with picket signs and stoic expressions, but escalated as passions consumed the workers.
One morning just before dawn I was awakened by what sounded like one car crash after another. Striking workers had commandeered the roof and started throwing furniture down to the sidewalk below. Appliances went over next. Soon fire hoses were let loose in the stairwells, turning them into waterfalls as the power went out. I checked into a different hotel, but not before carrying luggage down 15 darkened flights of stairs covered with gushing water. Stunned and stripped of my American sense of entitled outrage, I paid the bill in full without complaint, glad just to get out uninjured.
News reports the next day indicated some workers had threatened to throw themselves off the roof next.
This is all beside the point except to say that I have no problems understanding that Koreans are fiercely protective of their identity, that Koreans of a certain generation might rather open a business serving passable Japanese, Vietnamese or Mexican food (versions of which I’ve seen and tasted) than attempt to win over Americans with their home cooking and make the inevitable compromises. In other words, why mess with Korean food just because someone doesn’t understand it? It is, to Koreans, perfect after all.
The conceit of Kalbi Grill is that Korean food does not have a recipe problem, but rather a marketing problem.
“My friends all like Korean food,” Jeanna said, “but they always want me to go with them when they have it.”