Getting Your Bibimbap On, Pt i

Sole and Tofu House

Let's take a tour of the area's Korean restaurants to sample the world's greatest meal: bibimbap. On the first part of our journey we'll do away with the dolsot.

Bibimbap is the greatest food dish in the history of mankind. This is a fact. It is the king, queen, duke, jester, president, supreme ruler, and baron of the peasant dish; a one-stop workhorse for everything you can possibly want or need in a meal. It is easily prepared, hearty, nutritious, and tasty. It also has an awesome name and is sometimes served in a blazing-hot container. Take that, squid McMuffin.

The basic ingredients of bibimbap are as follows: 2-3 servings of julienned veggies (sometimes sauteed: namul), a kimcheed veggie, a small serving of sliced meat or tofu, an egg, spicy red pepper paste (gochujang), and some rice. The dish can be served piping hot in a fired stone bowl called a dolsot, or it can be prepared cold and served with warm rice. It is a meal that can empty out a fridge full of leftovers or be painstakingly prepared as a showpiece dish for entertaining family and friends. It is a fundamentally communal food.

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(Clockwise from top right: Left Handed Cook, Dong Yang, Tofu House, Korea Restaurant, Sole)

While the content and flavoring of bibimbap can differ from place to place and kitchen to kitchen, its taxonomy can be laid out according to the existence or avoidance of the dolsot. Dolsot bibimbap is cold-weather food. It is a volcanic stone bowl filled with rice and veggies topped off with a raw egg that must be quickly stirred together so as to cook itself into every nook and cranny of the dish. As the winter begins to drag on I'll start working on part ii of this post. For now, I'll focus on dolsot op'nun (없는) style.

The Players

1- Mirror of Korea

Address: 761 North Snelling Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55104
Phone: (651) 647-9004
Hours:

2- Sole Cafe

Address: 684 North Snelling Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55104
Phone: (651) 644-2068
Hours:


Address: 735 45th Ave NE, Columbia Heights, MN 55421
Phone: 763.571.2009
Hours:
M-Sa: 10-8, Su: 10-6 (get there 1/2 hour before close for final orders)


Address: Suite 124, Lake Street and 10th, Minneapolis
Phone: (612) 208-0428
Hours: M-Sa: 10-8, Su: 10-6


Address: 307 Delaware Street Southeast, Minneapolis, MN 55414
Phone: (612) 331-1112
Hours: M-S: 11-9


Address: 211 Beacon Street Southeast, Minneapolis, MN 55414
Phone: (612) 746-0559
Hours: M-Su: 11-9

Not considered: Hoban and King's. I'm really not into writing not-nice things about restaurants (why even talk about the bad ones?) and you don't really go to King's to eat bibimbap and...well, let's just pretend we can say the same thing about Hoban.

The Metrics

  1. Freshness: 10 points. Julienned veggies should be crisp. Sauteed veggies shouldn't be soggy or dripping in oil. Nothing should be canned. The meat (or tofu) should be of a decent cut and not too fatty.
  2. Seasoning: 10 points. There should be enough spice to get your attention. You should not be overpowered by either sesame oil or gochujang. There are a lot of things going on in a good bowl of bibimbap and you shouldn't have your attention grabbed by a single ingredient on every bite.
  3. Separation of taste and texture: 5 points. It shouldn't be a big bowl of mush. Even when blended together you should be able to taste and feel the different ingredients. This is a symphony, not a melting pot.
  4. The egg: 5 points. In the non-dolsot version of the dish, a badly prepared egg can really take down the overall quality of both the presentation and taste of the end product.
  5. Panchan: 5 points. Panchan are the little side dishes that are served with every Korean meal. In the case of bibimbap, these little ditties can be tossed right into the bowl for extra veggie goodness.
  6. Value: 5 points. Peasant dishes deserve peasant prices. This is a $8-10 type of meal that should give you a ton of good food with enough for next-day left overs. (BTW: Chapchae is another great Korean all-in-one meal that is really great for 3 full meals from a single order. The Chapchae at Dong Yang is one of the best meal values in town. For $12 you can get a full meal plus two lunches worth of left overs.)
  7. Consistency: 5 points. Do you get the same quality of meal on multiple visits?

The Production

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The Luke Ridnour of local bibimbap: Mirror of Korea (25 points)

Mirror of Korea used to be something of a train wreck. It was dingy, had a boring menu, and every now and then you'd find some hair in your meal or an unwashed dish. It has since been renovated and is, I think, under new ownership with a new menu and, instead of finding hair or unwashed dishes, you might be treated to a pretty fantastic one-time meal. Of course, you could also get a too-cold bowl of unseasoned veggies with an overly-fried egg and a bunch of repetitive panchan, so there's that.

The good:

  • Lots of panchan;
  • excellent bulgogi seasoning;
The not-so-good:
  • Repetitive panchan (sometimes 3 kimchis);
  • overly-fried egg
The verdict: Mirror of Korea offers a decent bowl of bibimbap that can, at times, be something of a hit or miss (and a big miss, at that). If you are in the mood for a regular bowl of bibimbap, there are a number of better options. Mirror should not be missed for its soups and bulgogi.

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The Dante Cunningham of local bibimbap: Korea Restaurant (28 points)

If you are a student at the University of Minnesota who is living on campus, stop what you are doing and head over to Dinkytown. Now. If you haven't been to Korea Restaurant before, and you are a struggling college student, you are missing out on one of the best meal deals on campus. With $8-15 you can get an enormous amount of food that will last you for 2-3 meals. It is also located close to Stub & Herb's so you can get your drink on before you get your bibimbap on.

Korea Restaurant is a little hole in the wall located across the street from Gopher Stadium (I refuse to recognize that damn bank). It has an expansive menu with a number of good soups and dishes. When you order, you will be given a ticket with a number on it and you need to return to the counter to pick up your tray. You also get to bus your own table.

Korea Restaurant's bibimbap is a pedestrian workhorse of a meal, and I mean that in the best possible way. There is nothing fancy about it. The veggies are very lightly seasoned, the egg is served over easy, the gochujang isn't too sweet, and the panchan is just enough to have some food for left overs. It is also less than $10.

Korea Restaurant's bibimbap gets the job done and it certainly beats anything else you can get for the money on campus if you are in the mood for Asian cuisine (or for any other cuisine for that matter). It's one of those meals that will fill you up without making you feel stuffed while still offering you decent taste and value.

The good:

  • Good value;
  • the soup is a nice touch
The not-so-good:
  • Nothing. It's just a nice meal for the money. Nothing stands out, both good or bad.
The verdict: Korea Restaurant is a nice place to eat. If you have a group of friends who just want to have bibimbap, there is another option in Dinkytown that should top your list, but if you want to expand the menu to other options, this is the place to go.

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The Ricky Rubio of local bibimbap:Sole (32 points)

First of all, let me just say that Sole is one of my very favorite restaurants for reasons above and beyond the bibimbap. The owner tries to buy as much local produce as possible, she is friendly beyond all get-out and will come out and chat with whoever is in the room, and it is the most "neighborhoody" feeling place on my list. Also, the new Casa-n-Pop is within a mile of this place and it figures to be a family favorite for a long, long time.

It is also the choice of Psy during his recent trip to St. Paul. Kind of goofy, I know, but I'll do just about anything to get people hooked on Korean food.

Another plus of Sole is that they sell their bibimbap sauce (which is really fantastic) and panchan (also fantastic). If you want a really great and quick meal at home, put on a pot of rice and pick up some kimchi and panchan to throw into a rice bowl. It's kind of a bibimbap-lite. Anywho...

This is a bowl of food that is best enjoyed in the summer, when farmer's markets are in full swing and local produce is abundant. In the winter, it's dialed down a bit. Sole is also the one Korean joint in town where the server (or owner) will come along and refill your panchan dishes. In Korea, this is a pretty common thing. In good LA or San Fran or San Jose Korean joints, this is a common thing. In Minny? Not so much. Getting panchan topped off without having to say "ah-ga-she, jo-gum do hey-jew-ship-she-oh" is kind of nice...and especially helpful for people who do not speak Korean.

Sole also has a local beer flight night every Thursday. Sweet Child O Vine + bibimbap? Yes please.

The good:

  • Super friendly neighborhood restaurant with awesome service
  • Excellent and flavorful gochujang
The not-so-good:
  • If you don't want to watch Korean TV while eating, this is not the place for you.
  • Slightly more pricey than other options.
The verdict: A solid bowl of bibimbap at a unicorn-level lovable neighborhood joint in St. Paul. Beer flights, karaoke, Korean TV, friendly service...just an all-around nice experience.

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The Andrei Kirilenko of local bibimbap: Tofu House (33 points)

Look at that picture. I've been to Tofu House for bibimbap 3-4 times and each time I've been there the dish has looked exactly like that picture. Whoever is preparing these meals really, really cares about you getting a wonderful plate of food and they want to make sure that experience is the same for whomever walks in the front door. The consistency at this place is amazing.

As for the bibimbap itself, it is a lightly seasoned with a decent-but-not-great gochujang bowl of food that really puts a lot of emphasis on the vegetables. The dish doesn't have the fidelity or juxtaposition of the two bowls ahead of it on the list, but it certainly is the best bibimbap on campus.

The good:

  • Wonderful presentation;
  • lots of veggies
The not-so-good:
  • Sparse panchan (really sparse)
The verdict: A really nice little restaurant with lovingly prepared food and a short menu with no filler. Excellent soups and a good bowl of bibimbap.

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The Kevin Love of local bibimbap: Dong Yang (41 points)

In the grand scheme of things, Minnesota is a fairly barren landscape of Korean cuisine. Having lived in Korea for a year and a half, and having lived in California for several months while learning Korean at the Defense Language Institute, I am very confident in telling you that people who have either lived in Korea or in Koreatown or in places with large Korean populations do not view Minnesota as a destination for great Korean food. Places like Mirror or the unreviewed Hoban would likely go immediately out of business in San Jose or LA. Not so Dong Yang. This is the most authentic and flavorful and comprehensive Korean cuisine experience in town and it's really not even close.

This is where you begin your Dong Yang journey.

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Head down the aisle, take a left, and viola. You will find yourself treated to one of the great hidden treasures in Twin Cities food-dom:

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This menu is lean and mean. There is not a single weak dish on the whole thing. There's also not an overly-priced item in the whole bunch. Their basic bibimbap clocks in at $8.99. You can get a massive plate of chapchae for $12.99. Kalbi is similarly priced. It's all fantastic and you will have leftovers for several meals.

Before I get around to the bibimbap, let's take a quick look at where Dong Yang really hovers above the rest of its competition: the panchan.

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You will never have repetitive panchan at Dong Yang. In this particular offering I was served sprouts, potatoes, spicy cabbage kimchi, eggplant, fish cakes, and sweet lettuce kimchi. Unlike the panchan offerings at some other local restaurants, each Dong Yang dish had its own flavoring and texture. You have chewy foods, crisp ones, sweet ones, salty ones, and spicy ones. They all come in excellent portion sizes that are, by themselves, enough to fill up a to-go container along with 1/2 of the rice you get with the main meal.

The bibimbap is a sturdy workhorse of a dish that performs much like Kevin Love by utilizing typically blue colar attributes and elevating them to superstar level production. Each bowl is built on a bed of lettuce that is covered in fresh fernbrake, sprouts, carrots, radish, cucumber, spinach, bulgogi, and seaweed. You then top the veggies with a cup of piping hot rice and some well-balanced gochujang, which is located in the pop fridge near the counter.

You then mix it all up with a huge spoon:

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That's a lot of veggies. That's a lot of well-balanced flavor and texture. It's one of those great meals that you can eat a lot of without getting too full, fat, and unhealthy.

There is nothing bad about Dong Yang bibimbap. It is supremely flavored, textured, and executed. It is also $8.99 and one of the very best food values in the Twin Cities.

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The LeBron F'ing James of local bibimbap: Left Handed Cook (38 out of 40 points, no panchan)

There is no better meal in Minneapolis right now for under $10. Period. Game over, go home.

This dish isn't exactly a traditional bibimbap. It is what the Left Handed Cook calls a Bop Bowl ("bop" is rice in Korean). It currently comes in 5 different variations: Short rib (seen above), chicken, shrimp, pork belly (seen below), and veggie.

The bowls used to be served in take out boxes:

Old_take_out_medium

There was something pretty cool about getting a gourmet version of bibimbap in a takeout container. Was it kind of hipster ironic? Yeah, but you could still be sincere about the overall ethic of the presentation. It was a reasonably priced super meal in a take out container. I was pretty bummed for a grand total of about 5 seconds when I saw that they no longer used the take out boxes and had, instead, switched to this:

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It was only a matter of time before someone took the Chipotle concept to Korean food. Thankfully, that someone was Thomas Kim at Left Handed Cook. Right here in Minneapolis. That's luck, folks. Enjoy it.

Deciding which Bop Bowl is the best is a matter of personal choice. I'm a fan of the pork belly version but they are all wonderful.

What makes the LHC Bop Bowls said wonderful? It starts with a virtuoso grouping of veggies. Sweet cucumbers, perfectly seasoned spinach, expertly spiced kimchi, just-right sprouts, a small amount of lettuce, and some pickled garlic. They are balanced against a wonderfully portioned serving of meat, a dash of gochujang (you don't get to put your own gochujang on this bowl), and LHC's secret bibimbap weapon: a poached egg. All of this mixes together into an impossibly good bowl of bibimbap.

The (sort of) elephant in the room at LHC is that it is a counter in Midtown Global and there are no panchan. Instead, each meal is started off with a small paper bowl of Asian-spiced popcorn. It's a neat way to start a meal and it almost always passes the time between your order and when the food arrives in front of you.

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Via Urban Spoon, East LA Sammie by Tyler Jay Prieve.

LHC also features the best pulled pork sandwich in the cities (East LA Sammie) and the best fried chicken (21 spice) this side of Kansas City. (Seriously, the fried chicken is worth going bonkers over.) It's an amazing little counter that one can only hope will either fulfill the Chipotle-esque Kimchi Union burrito Bop Bowl vision or morph into a full size Korean fusion/comfort food BBQ.

There is also no more perfect pairing for LHC Bop Bowls than this:

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Pour Decisions Patersbier

I cannot tell you how much I love the two main Pour Decisions beers. Both brews eschew the hophead craze in favor of giving its fans hugely drinkable low alcohol content beers that taste great with food. Patersbier is an amazing beer that works wonderfully with Korean flavors. Stop by the tap room in Roseville to pick up a growler...or two.

Well folks, that about does it for part i of the bibimbap tour. Later this winter (and after our move is completed and life gets back to normal...relatively speaking) I'll put up part ii: dolsot bowls. Until then, go enjoy some bibimbap at one of these fine local establishments.

Via con dios, brah.

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