Chopsticks amazing

Mi Loc’s neighbors in an aging strip mall are Golden Acu Massage Therapy (offering “acupressure” and Chinese herbs) and the Seoul Oriental Grocery — good signs that pointed to an authentic dining experience. I love ethnic groceries, so we made time to wander the aisles full of things we had never heard of (such as dried bracken) or couldn’t imagine the use for (dried green pepper leaves). There were five varieties of sesame seeds on the shelves — roasted, salted, crushed, roasted black and wild sesame flour — and several brands of each. After purchasing a bag of candied ginger and a container of kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage), we headed for the restaurant. In the entry, hand-lettered signs in Korean were untranslated. On our first visit, a weeknight, we were the only round-eyes — another good sign.

The 10-year-old Mi Loc changed hands two years ago; it is now owned by Sin Ae Park and Taiyi Zheng. The husband-and-wife team shares long hours, she as manager, he as chef. “We are always open,” Sin Ae said cheerfully. Like many Korean restaurants in the area, Mi Loc also serves Japanese food, including sushi, sashimi, tempura and teriyaki. It’s hard to figure the connection between the robust cooking of Korea and the artful, ethereal cuisine of Japan, but perhaps the conjoining is explained by the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1905 to 1945.

Most of the patrons who filled the 120-seat restaurant on a Saturday night were eating barbecued meat, prepared on gas grills built into the tables. The process is labor-intensive, but convivial. We’ve bungled our way through Korean barbecue before, so I watched the table next to us with interest. Six Korean teens sat around a grill filled with thin slices of marinated beef. The meat sizzles when it’s laid on the hot grill, and the server returns to turn it again and again with a big pair of tongs. Finally, she held the meat with her tongs and cut it into smaller pieces with an oversized pair of scissors. Six hands, each with a pair of chopsticks, reached for the meat, either eating it with a dipping sauce and sticky rice, or wrapping it in a lettuce leaf with a bit of rice and one (or more) of the half-dozen condiments on the table.

We began one dinner with an appetizer of gyoza, pan-fried dumplings filled with ground meat, a favorite that crosses many Oriental cultures. On another occasion we began with sushi, a rolled variety with the unseemly name of American Dream ($9.95). The tails of tempura-fried shrimp stuck out of either end of the roll; the slices revealed the jewel-like interior created by caviar, crabmeat and slivers of cucumber.

Samgaetang, a tiny whole chicken cooked in ginseng broth, is stuffed with rice, chestnuts, dates and garlic. You pull the meat off the chicken with chopsticks and dip it in a dish of seasoned salt. A passing server took pity on me and offered a fork. The salt part was the most difficult — I got either too much or too little. When I told him I had not used the fork after all, he raised his eyebrows (I interpreted this as amazement) and smiled slightly.

Mandoo konk is a traditional soup with beef dumplings, noodles and shreds of brisket, definitely a meal.

My favorite was japchae, a stir-fry of rice vermicelli, with slivers of beef and carrots no wider than toothpicks, plus green and red peppers, scallions and onions.

The co-diner was intrigued by samgyup gool bossam, thinly sliced pork belly with fresh oysters, but settled on nakji bokkeum, which features octopus, made spicy-hot by big slices of jalapeños, seeds and all. Served with vermicelli, the chewy tentacles are stir-fried with onion and peppers.

We shared a large bottle of OB Korean beer, brewed “by the fresh-air method.” Japanese and American brews are also available, along with hot and cold sake. Open daily 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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