Heading north on Highway 99 from Seattle, you'll lose count of the Korean restaurants along the way. Most are in strip malls, many are worth a stop, but few offer as mod a dining room — or as cutesy a logo — as Hae-Nam Kalbi & Calamari in Shoreline.
Hanging above the entrance is a pudgy toque-wearing piglet with a squidy sidekick. I expected to find Porky Pig waiting inside with Squidward. No such luck, though I did find Peter Rabbit at the table — stamped on the plastic boxes hiding thin metal chopsticks.
The place was suspiciously quiet on my first visit. To my right were a handful of comfortable-looking booths crowned with big fans to suck up the sizzle from tabletop barbecue grills. To my left, semi-private rooms divided by shoji screens. Straight ahead, two long tables set with a colorful array of banchan — Korean side dishes.
A woman peeked out of the kitchen, escorted me to a booth, produced a menu and poured barley tea. And before I could say, "I'll have the mahn-doo-ghook," the doors opened and a parade of grannies, toddlers, grade-school kids and their parents swiftly filed in.
"Bus," explained my server, delivering my bowl of beef broth bobbing with garlicky beef-filled mahn-doo (dumplings). The group was on a tour — and a timetable — which explained the banchan awaiting their arrival. Usually, those complimentary treats arrive after you order, alongside kimchi and steamed rice.
Within moments, rolling carts emerged from the kitchen bearing bulgogi (grilled marinated beef) and steaming platters of other, more mysterious-looking dishes. And in the time it took to finish my soup and polish off my banchan, the bus crowd had managed to eat it and beat it.
I've since returned with crowds of my own. We delved into the banchan (marinated daikon radish, bean sprouts, young ferns, teensy candied fish with walnuts, spicy cucumber, pressed tofu), and shared broad stewpots brimming with black-cod steak and root vegetables. We devoured crisp fillets of broiled mackerel; ate hae-mool pah-juhn — a limp, disappointing version of the classic seafood-and-green-onion pancake; and complained about the sour taste of the warm house sake (they didn't charge us for it).
And of course we had kalbi and calamari. The marbled short ribs, anchored by a thick bone, unfurled across our barbecue grate to be grilled alongside slices of onion and meaty king mushroom. Oddly, that turns out to be the only dish available for table-top grilling. The rest of the fare described as "BBQ on the Grill" is prepared in the kitchen, or, like the calamari, cooked at the table on a propane-fueled hotplate.
We brandished tongs and, with occasional help from our server, tended a pot of thick-sliced squid and scallion greens lavished with the sweet, spicy chili paste gochujang ($12.99). We happily ponied-up an extra $2.99 for translucent noodles made with sweet potato starch — perfect for soaking up the cooking juices. That squid also comes paired with pork "belly," though when I tried it, the pork was devoid of any of the fat associated with that cut.
Even the fussiest eaters among my cohorts were happy to lick their fingers after eating dwae-jee-kalbi, lean pork ribs in a spicy marinade, served sizzling on a cast-iron plate. And after my pal Joe insisted we order a dish described aptly if unromantically as "boiled and seasoned whelk meats and boiled thin noodles," we nearly gave him — and the cook — a standing ovation.
That summery surprise is a salad, built primarily of chopped greens and onions tossed with tender whorls of whelk-meat. Whelk (Italians know it as scungilli ) tastes like a cross between a snail and a clam. Surrounded with nests of chilled wheat noodles and dressed with spicy chili sauce, it generously fed four.
One night, the group in the private dining suite next to ours actually did applaud, several times. "Bus," said the waitress, in response to my raised eyebrow. Sure enough, when we left, there was a touring coach with B.C. plates waiting outside. And it wasn't the only bus in the lot ...
Taqueria El Carreton
Don't like Korean food? There's always Mexican.
Tostadas! Horchata ! Burritos! Mulitas! Sharing the strip-mall parking lot is Taqueria El Carreton, a converted yellow school bus with a takeout window, 10 indoor swivel seats and daily specials (six tacos, soda and "bus"-made horchata for $5.99? Get out!).
My kid, who lives close enough to school to ride a bike, begged me to come back and try the place. And with a big meal for two barely breaking $10, it's no wonder we've become regulars.
We love the satellite TV (for watching the Spanish-speaker's version of "Deal or No Deal"). And the tacos and mulitas filled with our choice of meats (especially the spicy pork abodabo and moist, pot roast-y birrea). Hot out? Then chill out with a couple of tostadas — the crisped, open-faced tortillas host a heaping helping of citrus-marinated bay shrimp.
Brother-and-sister team Nicolas and Olivia Guzman, who hail from Guadalajara, keep their bus "moving" daily from 10 a.m. (yes, they serve huevos ) to 10 p.m.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More reviews at www.seattletimes.com/restaurants.
Hae-Nam Kalbi & Calamari
15001 Aurora Ave. N., Shoreline; 206-367-7843
Reservations: For parties of seven or more.
Prices: $7.95-$17.95, lunch specials $6.95-$8.95.
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Sundays.
Drinks: You can count on Korean beers. Skip the (lousy) sake and have soju instead. Limited hard liquor.
Parking: Strip-mall lot.
Sound: Quiet — till the tour bus pulls up.
Who should go: Koreans who live nearby.
Korean tour groups. Korean-restaurant junkies.
Credit cards: AE, MC, V.
Mahn-doo-ghook (dumpling soup) $7.95
Beef kalbi $16.95
Pork kalbi $16.95
Calamari with spicy hot sauce $12.95
Broiled Atlantic mackerel $11.95
Boiled whelk with cold noodles $17.95
Bi-bim-bap $6.95 (lunch), $7.95 (dinner)
Taqueria El Carreton
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.