February 08, 2011

Because Twitter Isn't Only About What You Had For Lunch

In his rules for blogging, a friend of mine admonishes, "Don’t let Twitter take your good ideas." I realize that I'm quite guilty of doing that very often. As in, all-the-time often. The links I used to save up to share here in posts now get shot off on Twitter for a very short shelf. After that, they automatically go to my Pearltrees, where they're always accessible but live in oblivion for the vast majority of you.

Tonight, however, I felt really inspired to take something from my day and share it here instead of "wasting" on a tweet. I may just revive this blog yet!

In case you don't already know it, food is one of my very favorite things. While I'm fairly picky about certain things, I'm willing to try things at least once and I eat a wide variety of cuisines now that they're so readily available to me here in the Bay Area. Where I grew up, Chinese food was for special nights out and Japanese cuisine was positively exotic, so having those plus Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Afghan, Greek, Mediterranean and more at my beck and call and gustatory whim is fantastic.

I had planned to go to a Mediterranean place that has my favorite hummus, but then I remembered I am supposed to go to a similar kind of place for lunch tomorrow. Right as I realized that, I saw a sign for a new restaurant in a plaza I go to fairly often and I turned in to try something I'd never had before: Korean food. There are a number of Korean restaurants in the area, but I'd never been to one because usually I don't try stuff I have no clue about without someone who knows about it to guide me for at least the first visit. As I had no guide, I turned to Yelp to make sure it wasn't someplace to be avoided at all costs. It wasn't, and people had good things to say about food I'd only ever heard of before, so I decided to be brave, soldier on, go for the gusto and all those sorts of things that really don't apply to simply having a meal.

Really, there was one thing on the menu that finally propelled me through the door: Bibimbap.  Never heard of it, you say? Let's turn to Wikipedia, shall we, since it's the most concise explanation I found: "Bibimbap is a popular Korean dish. The word literally means "mixed meal." Bibimbap is served as a bowl of warm white rice topped with namul (sautéed and seasoned vegetables) and gochujang (chili pepper paste). A raw or fried egg and sliced meat (usually beef) are common additions. The ingredients are stirred together thoroughly just before eating. It can be served either cold or hot."

The style served at this restaurant is called dolsot bibimbap, which is served in a very hot stone pot. The neat part of the stone bowl is that it both cooks the egg when you stir it into the rest of the ingredients and forms a crispy crust of rice along the bottom. I really like crispy, so that was a big appeal. 

I knew what I wanted, so I ordered quickly and got a nice cup of hot green tea right away. Before I had taken more than a sip, the waitress was back and started laying out small, mostly shallow bowls of different things, without explanation. I was a little puzzled because I wasn't sure if they were supposed to go in the bibimbap, like you do with all the things that come before you eat Vietnamese phở, or if they were merely accompaniments. I was hungry and there was no one else to observe how they went about it, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and just sample them all.

I was even more puzzled when I pulled out my chopsticks and they were metal. I wasn't expecting that, but they looked pretty cool and worked just fine, so I dived in. There was a delicious cold potato dish (no clue what it's called or what was in it but I loved it), a bean sprout dish that was refreshing, a transparent noodle kind of salad that I devoured, some zucchini that had been marinated in something and were quite tasty, a fishy kind of broth with seaweed in it (the only thing that I didn't care for and didn't have more than a taste of) and what I was pleased with myself for recognizing as the traditional Korean dish, kimchi. I will fully admit I was really hesitant to try the kimchi because I thought it was going to be super spicy hot; happily, it wasn't and it was rather savory and delicious.

Just as I'd finished my first cup of tea and had tried all the dishes that I can only assume are meant as an appetizer, the bibimbap arrived in all its sizzling glory. I'm a little annoyed that I didn't think to take a picture, but I was hungry and it smelled so good that I couldn't wait. (The first picture in the Wikipedia article looks almost exactly like it, though.) I stirred it up well with the chopsticks, making sure the tiny, raw egg got out to the hot stone where it cooked up instantly, and was relieved to note that the chili paste hadn't been put on top but was instead on the table in a bottle for stouter souls than I.

The taste was just wonderful, a fantastic mix of healthy, nutritious things served in a way that kept them hot the whole way through the meal. It was simply a delight to eat it and as I made my way into the bowl, the reason for the metal chopsticks became clear: they're to get all that luscious, crispy rice scraped up off the bottom of the bowl! Those cheap, wooden chopsticks you normally see would never be up to the task and it's critical to enjoying the dish.

The lovely waitresses kept refilling my tea (which was very good) and offering more of pretty much anything I'd shown an interest in eating, but the amount of food was just right and I got to the bottom of the bowl, happy but not stuffed. The owner also came by to see if I was enjoying my meal and offered to make me something to drink if I wanted it or get me anything that would help me enjoy it even more. They really made me feel at home when I should have felt out of my element and made the entire experience just that little bit more delightful.

When I had turned down another offer of refills of the small dishes, the check arrived with a little bottle of Yakult, another thing I'd seen but never tried before. I hesitated because I would have been disappointed if I ruined my post-meal "happy mouth" with something that was sour or unpleasant. I decided I might as well keep with the spirit of "nothing ventured, nothing gained," popped the top off and downed it. It was sweet and delicious and creamy and turned out to be a perfect compliment to the meal and chased away any thoughts of having dessert afterward somewhere else.

If you're in the area and are interested in giving it a taste sometime, the place I went for this culinary delight is called Kong Tofu & BBQ in Cupertino. (On their menu it was called bibimbab, by the bye. I'd always seen it with the "p," though, and it just sounds better that way to me. Go ahead, say it a few times, it's a fun word!) If not, keep an eye out for a Korean restaurant and give it a try sometime. If you're already a pro, feel free to tell me in the comments what all the dishes are that I couldn't identify or, better yet, invite me out to lunch and show me in person.