Thursday, February 10, 2011
Orient Express has stuck around Seaside since the Fort Ord days, when it was a gathering spot for GIs, Korean spouses, their kids and extended family. Current owners Jong Yool Yun and Ran Yun have run the place for nine years, and though the community has changed (and a big part of their clientele now consists of tour buses unloading waves of cosmopolitan Korean tourists), that same homey hospitality has stayed put.
The exterior of Orient Express is a faded, strip-mall pink, and the large interior (a recent fire temporarily debilitated the kitchen, though the interior looks unscathed) is divided into sections that include traditional restaurant tables with glass tops, spacious booths, banquet seating and a private room. A karaoke machine with a big screen TV and dance floor space inhabits the back (now that’s Asian). On a couple of visits timed to celebrate Feb. 3’s Korean New Year (which is the same as Chinese New Year), a skeletal staff prompted my companion and I to seat ourselves, which no one minded as we were attended to quickly with leather-bound menus chock full of photos of the dishes.
I took my mom, who is Korean, to lunch there. She’s worked in food service most of her life and no kitchen shortcut escapes her; if she detects any, she’ll politely not eat the food, to some waiters’ befuddlement. She ordered a stew called kim chi jig-ae ($10.95), which came to the table bubbling in a hot clay pot. It’s a wicked red potion floating with bits of beef, chunks of potatoes, tofu, scallions and kim chi. With a side of wild rice, it’s a spicy/salty staple that warms the belly like a fireplace in a winter’s cabin. My mom made this stew completely disappear.
I had the more conventional lunch box ($7.45; $11.95 dinner box) of mae un dak gu yi, barbecued chicken with spicy sauce, sweet/spicy radish, tempura-fried vegetables, white rice and a side salad dolloped with a fiery dressing. The chicken was tender, sweeter than it was spicy, and the tempura’s consistency turned rock-like pretty quickly, but it was the supporting cast – the banchan – that carried the meal.
Banchan are the myriad side dishes that come with most every Korean meal. At Orient Express it includes some variation of fresh-cut kim chi, sweet and salty tiny anchovies (yes, with the heads on, though some stores sell them decapitated for the squeamish), cubes of radish kim chi, chunks of potatoes soaked in soybean oil and soy sauce, sweet and tender black beans, fresh soy beans and stalks sprinkled in oil, seaweed pickled in vinegar, cucumber kim chi and a root vegetable kim chi.
Banchan is to Korean food what color is to a painter. Eaten with a base of rice and often some meat, they work like a color palette, changing the timbre and hue of each bite in an evolving, complex swirl of spicy, sweet, sour, savory and salty. Start with a spoonful of rice to the mouth, throw in some meat, then add pieces of radish kim chi for a sour snappiness, maybe some anchovy for a burst of fibery sweetness, peppers for heat… chew, let them mingle… throw in some savory black beans and potato to cut the heat, maybe finish with slippery seaweed. Every bite can go in completely different directions. One lunch companion sagely called it “interactive eating.”
On a second visit for dinner, my friend and I started with an appetizer of kim bap ($3.50), an all-vegetable roll cut into six pieces that provided tasty, crunchy, chewy bites that we washed down with hot tea.
He ordered dae ji bul go ki ($13.95, with plenty to take home), commonly referred to in Americanese as “Korean barbecue.” It was savory, tender – “uber-fresh, quality meat, a balance of heat and sweet,” he said – served in a skillet atop sizzling onions.
I went for the tofu ji-gae ($10.95), a rich pot of spicy broth bubbling with tofu, beef (more for flavor than protien) and vegetables. I added rice, which adds substance and cuts some of the heat.
On a final lunch visit, my companion ordered dol sot di bim bap ($11.95), a medley of vegetables and meat, atop white rice, that’s arranged like a color wheel with a dollop of a raw egg in the center – a rainbow radiating from a sun. Again, it arrives sizzling in a clay pot and the object is to stir the mixture, which further cooks it (the egg fries as it comes in contact with the pot). But the staff should instruct the uninitiated to do this, otherwise the extremities of the rice can brown and harden. It was milder than I thought, with a preponderance of rice, but some squirts of red pepper sauce brightened things nicely.
I went for the tofu ji-gae ($10.95), a seafood variation of the other ji-gaes, or stews. There were scant pieces of seafood, but a rich seafood flavor and plentiful pieces of slippery, soft tofu.
Over the course of the meal, it struck me that we were experiencing one of the richest rewards of a quality ethnic restaurant: It can take years to learn another language, and hundreds of dollars to visit a foreign land, but when you eat the food of other cultures, you absorb key ingredients of that culture. Besides the lively flavors and aromas of the food dished up at Orient Express, that cultural immersion is another tasty experience to savor. And who knows, you might even become a regular of this longstanding restaurant where, as one fortune cookie stated, “others appreciate your expressive qualities.”
ORIENT EXPRESS 1884 Fremont Blvd., Seaside. • 11am-9pm daily. • 394-9494.