A Mecca For Korean Food -- Explore The Scope Of This Garlic- And Heat-Driven Cuisine At Hosoonyi


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Hosoonyi, 23830 Highway 99 (in Courtyard Square), Edmonds ($) Reservations: 425-775-8196

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; cocktails and side dishes served 10 p.m.-2 a.m. daily. Prices: $6.95-$13.95 Beer and wine; hard liquor served after 10 p.m. only. Credit cards: MC, V No obstacles to access Parking: lot -------------------------------

Quick. Name two Korean restaurants. Bet you can't. Though Asian food is an integral part of America's dining-culture - especially in Seattle, where supermarkets flaunt sushi bars and Thai restaurants abound - the cuisine of Korea remains largely unexplored territory for most of us.

Sure, you may be familiar with kalbi and kimchi - Korean specialties that hold a place in our collective food consciousness. That said, unless you or your relatives have roots in Korea, chances are you haven't explored the broader scope of this garlic- and heat-driven cuisine - or the scores of Korean restaurants tucked into strip malls and shopping centers throughout the metropolitan area.

Which means you've probably never taken a spoon to soon doo boo, the chili-stoked soft tofu soup that makes Hosoonyi, nearly hidden from view off Highway 99 in Edmonds, a mecca for those who have.

Served in a bubbling mini-cauldron floating various meats, seafood, vegetables and custardy tofu, this delicious, "healthful" soup ($6.95) - garnished table-side with dried seaweed and a whole raw egg - gets top billing, in English, on the storefront marquee. What you won't see in English is the restaurant's name - it's displayed only in Korean.

Alone the first time, I stayed with the tried-and-true: kalbi ($12.95). Served on a sizzling platter, lengths of thin, cross-cut beef ribs, marinated and grilled, are sliced by a waitress wielding Edward Scissorhands-like shears. As you delve into this heap of beef layered over onion, use your chopsticks to move the meat to the bottom of the skillet. That way, its sweet, salty marinade will properly char and caramelize those marvelous morsels.

On another visit, bulgogi ($11.95) - paper-thin slices of mildly sweet boneless rib-eye - showed-up on a less-than-sizzling platter. The meat and onions failed to caramelize and grew lukewarm - a detraction that caused the Korean-American pal I brought along to scoff at the notion of "pre-cooked" bulgogi. Traditionally, you cook such meat yourself on a tabletop grill.

The dwae jee bulgogi (made with pork), shares the beef version's description - "marinated in-house sauce." But be forewarned: this sauce is kicked-up with red-pepper paste, and well deserves the little chili-pepper icon on the menu. As with most dishes, it may be ordered milder by request, but "mild" is relative here.

Another friend shrugged off the "spicy" descriptor and chose gae goo mae un tahng, getting more than she bargained for in a fiery stew made with chunks of black cod. Koreans do not "sanitize" their fish to suit American tastes: fish skin, bones and - aha! - even cod intestines (tender, white, and mild-flavored) enhanced the broth.

Squid is a favored ingredient in Korean cookery, but don't expect delicate rings. Ropy tentacles are sauteed till just-chewy, and you may even find a squid head nestling among the fresh mushrooms and zucchini in the oh jing uh bohkum.

For me, the best part of a Korean meal is the arrival of banchan - small dishes of pickled and marinated vegetables and other goodies used as condiments for your rice bowl. Here you're treated to an array of crisp, crunchy, spicy snacks including kimchi (made with cabbage or cubed daikon radish); bean sprout salads; rice vinegar-napped leafy greens; gelatinous kelp (much better than it sounds); and - if you're lucky - tiny, whole dried fish (envision sun-dried minnows).

Forget about courses. Everything's served at once. And don't be thrown by the header "Sides for Liquor" (these are the only items available after 10 p.m., when hard liquor is served to the accompaniment of karaoke). The "sides" are large enough to share among four and I beg you not to leave before trying the hae mool pah juhn. Big as a dinner plate, served with a light dipping sauce, this crisp seafood pancake will appeal to even the shyest of palates.

If you choose to sit, legs crossed, at one of six low tables on a raised and screened-in polished wood floor adjacent the cafe level, you'll have to remove your shoes. Here, as in the main dining area, you'll have to flag down a waitress if you want more of that smoky, roasted-barley tea or a second bottle of OB beer. You'll need it - to quell the slow burn that makes Korean food so addictive for those brave enough to try it.

Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail is nleson@seattletimes.com.