Korean Cuisine Offers Cultural Exploration

by Alex Cheser
Columnist

It took me several visits to Sqecial Media before I realized that I had been passing a restaurant on my way upstairs. I took note, but it wasn’t until last Saturday night that I ventured to dine at Han Woo Ri. My friend Bethany Davenport and I were using the dinner to catch up, and both of us had never experienced Korean cuisine before. We were quite excited.

Not sure what to expect, we entered the small dining room and were greeted by Linda Jeoung at the counter. Jeoung is currently a senior at Lafayette High School and helps run the restaurant with her Korean-born parents. Her father sought out Lexington to earn his doctorate at the University of Kentucky, but the Jeoungs fell in love with Lexington’s size and community and have lived here since. They’re not the original owners of Han Woo Ri but took over the establishment from another Korean couple a little over a year ago.

As I browsed through the menu, I had a lot of trouble deciding because each of the dishes sounded delicious. I picked Soon Doo Boo and Bethany chose the Jap Chae.

Once you order at the counter, you can seat yourself in the dining room. We took our drinks (You get a free canned drink if you pay in cash.) and sat down near the faux fireplace. The dining room is pleasantly bright with light green paint, cute Korean 3-D wall art, plenty of lighting and wood floors along with wooden furniture. It feels very organic and clean.

Linda brought us complimentary miso soup, which Bethany and I enjoyed very much. Miso soup, if you haven’t had it, is miso paste mixed with some sort of broth. Miso, a staple in Asian and particularly Japanese cuisine, is a seasoning made from fermented soy, rice or grains with salt and other seasonings. It’s very delicious and very savory, yet clean-tasting. Honestly, it’s what I prefer to chicken noodle soup when I’m sick.

It wasn’t long before our food was ready. Soon Doo Boo is a Korean soup consisting of silken tofu and seafood, in this case shrimp and squid, in a spicy broth flavored with chili powder and served with white rice. It’s delicious and warm both in taste and temperature (It was still boiling when brought to the table.) but not unpleasant or overly spicy.

Jap Chae is a dish made of sweet potato noodles with various vegetables, including mushrooms, and either beef or pork, also with a side of white rice. It’s flavored with sesame oil and soy sauce and has an almost sweet taste. Bethany and I both raved over how delicious each dish was.

Side dishes, called banchan, are also very important in Korean cuisine as it signifies wealth and prosperity. Both of the meals came with a side of kimchi and a cold potato carrot salad that tasted like a sort of Asian hash brown salad, if that makes sense. Regardless, it was delicious.

Kimchi is probably an acquired taste, but you should try it without a doubt. It’s a traditional dish of fermented napa cabbage, ginger, scallions and other veggies that’s both spicy and sour from the brine taste. I loved it, but Bethany held off.

The menu only has about 10 or so dishes to choose from, but the Jeoungs’ goal is to provide very fresh and authentic dishes. Asian fusion cuisine is quite popular these days, but the goal of Han Woo Ri is to honor the culinary tradition of Korea as reflected in the name of the restaurant. The ingredients they purchase are as organic or fresh as possible, too.

Korean families frequent the restaurant, but given the location, the bulk of the crowd seems to be students. Jeoung even pointed out that their lunch crowd was three times as big as their dinner crowd. All entrées are under $10, so it’s no wonder why it’s popular. If you go, they are open Monday-Saturday from 11 to 3 for lunch and from 5 to 9 for dinner. You can dine in or carry out. Not only is it exciting to try a new cuisine, but it’s an integral part of exploring a culture.

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