Seoul food

Worried about vampires? You can keep them at arm's length by dosing yourself with the garlic-laden fare at Hankuk Oriental and Korean Market in Clinton Township. Of course, you will keep most everyone else away as well, but it will be worth it considering the tiny restaurant's interesting cuisine and very reasonable prices.

The owners, Dennis and Okcha Gearardo, met in Korea more than 40 years ago when Dennis was in the military. They ran the Eastwind restaurant from 1981 to 1988, bought the Hankuk Market in 1990 and in 2000 decided to add a dining nook to the Asian grocery store. With four tables and four booths in their narrow eatery, they can handle around 30 customers at one time, which is just as well, since the Hankuk is a family affair. Dennis is out front in the adjacent store, Okcha and her sister Sunyeham are in the kitchen, and sometimes the grandkids show up to bus and serve.

Although the setting is diner-plain, Dennis adds a touch of gentility with fresh flowers in Asian-accented Arizona Tea "vases."

Hankuk is another word for Korea and the 20-item menu is all Korean.

There are about 35,000 Korean-Americans in the metropolitan area, with the largest communities well west of the restaurant, which is on Gratiot Avenue just north of 14 Mile Road in a small strip mall. Because of its location, only about 60 percent of Hankuk's patrons are Korean. Although Okcha's authentic cuisine makes few compromises for the American palate, you don't have to be Korean to enjoy it.

About those vampires: Koreans consume more garlic than any other nationality in the world; not surprisingly, it is a key ingredient in at least half of the aromatic dishes that emerge from Hankuk's kitchen. Though many are on the hot side, Dennis suggests that even those are only moderately incendiary — from a Korean perspective. And you can always ask for milder or even fierier preparations.

As in most Korean restaurants, the Gearardos offer several complimentary sides or banchan for openers, including pungent kimchi and peppery daikon radish chunks.

Given the heat to come, it may be advisable to begin with that Korean standard, bibim bab. Okcha's take on it, without rice, can pass for a salad—delicately cut cucumbers, bits of beef, spinach, fiddlehead ferns, a dab of sweetish red-pepper paste and the expected cold fried egg, sprinkled delightfully with sesame seeds. At $6.50, bibim bab reflects the average cost of a dish at Hankuk.

Another mild starter could be Korean potstickers or gun-mandoo, which are meat-filled dumplings, carefully fried to a gentle crisp. The price is right at 10 for $5.

More than half of the menu items are either soups or preparations in broth. For example, Duk-mandoo-guk is beef broth overflowing with scores of dumplings, rice cakes, beef, bits of egg yolk, green onion and garlic. For those whose Asian culinary reference is primarily Chinese, it seems to be a cross between egg drop and wonton soup.

The Korean fish stew, on the other hand, composed of large chunks of fish, small crab legs and squid, along with vegetables, red-pepper paste and garlic, resembles a West Coast cioppino or a bouillabaisse in consistency, taste and color.

Bul-go-ki, one of Dennis's favorites, is a sweet entrée centered around tender strips of beef tenderloin marinated with sesame oil and seed, green onion, soy sauce and honey.

On the other side of the spicy spectrum, if you did not get enough of the kimchi appetizer, you can always go for that cabbage treat in kimchi-chigae. Here, loads of kimchi appear in a broth accompanied by stir-fried pork, green onion, red-pepper powder and garlic.

Ojinga-bukum, stir-fried squid, green onion, carrots, red-pepper powder and, of course, the ubiquitous garlic, is also quite spicy. Given the prominence of red-pepper paste or powder and garlic at Hankuk, one finds a good deal of similarity in the flavorings of many dishes, despite the meat or fish item around which they are constructed.

Vegetarians can substitute tofu for the "meat" in several entrées. Moreover, soybean-paste soup, buckwheat vermicelli in cold soup, and Japanese-style noodle soup all are available in their pure vegetarian state.

A recommended beverage is Korean roasted-corn tea. This somewhat strong tea is more pleasing than it sounds, with the unusual corn flavor apparent but not that obtrusive.

When I asked Dennis about the dessert list, he replied simply that Koreans generally do not do desserts as we know them.

While you wait for your meal, take a look at the intriguing array of Asian produce and gifts in the market next door. In addition, the market serves as a mini Blockbuster for Korean film and TV tapes, some of which are featured, without subtitles, on the television set in the restaurant. More important, of course, Hankuk serves as an excellent introduction to the Korean kitchen, and you are sure to retain the assertive flavors hours after you drive away from Clinton Township.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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