When we sat down at Kimco Bethany Seafood, I really had no idea what we were in for.
They welcomed us with cups of tea and tiny bowls of rice porridge. The Korean barley tea was great on a cold night – rich and dark, like toasted wheat bread. The porridge was very tasty, with flavors I didn’t quite recognize – dried fish? – but it was gone in just a couple of bites. Adorably, the spoons they provided had little paper envelopes over the bowls, to keep them sanitary.
We’d gone in thinking seafood bibimbap for dinner, but our eyes were caught by the sushi-and-sashimi combo. The small combo, the helpful waitress assured us, would be enough for two to share. (At $59.95, I thought, it had better be.)
It began innocently enough, with a sort of Korean twist on a bento platter: seaweed in a spicy red sauce, sliced sushi roll battered and fried, edamame, some sort of sliced dried starchy root vegetable (I think? Honestly, I have no idea, I’m sorry) and thick pieces of fish skin, fried crunchy. Before we’d had time to taste everything on the platter, two hand rolls arrived, seaweed cones perched in a little stand, filled with rice and fish and pickled vegetables, and the waitress encouraged us to eat those quickly, before the seaweed got mushy.
After that, the next round of dishes arrived in such a flurry that I’m unable to tell you what got there first. I think Korean meals just involve being surrounded by a number of little plates, and if the diners aren’t completely outnumbered by the sheer crowd of dishes before them, you’re doing it wrong. (nb: I am not Korean. I’m Chinese-American; this is a brave new world to me.)
There was creamed corn, but with huge corn kernels, and the cream had an interesting acidic tang. There were clams, on open shells, tasting bright and fresh. There was a bowl of steamed egg (always one of my favorite dishes) and one of burnt rice. There were cold knotted cooked scallions bearing a thick dollop of spicy red sauce. (Not a big fan of this one, mainly because my teeth couldn’t penetrate the thick knot of slippery fibrous scallion; I eventually chewed it enough to extract some flavor, and then eventually gave it up as a poor use of my time.) A dish of tasty noodle stir fry joined the crowd. And then an entire little fish less than a foot long, fried crispy from head to tail, arrived at the table. “I don’t know what this fish is called,” the waitress confessed as she set it down.
It didn’t matter what it was called. It was fantastic. K’s chopsticks broke through the crispy skin with a promising crunch, and uncovered meltingly soft flesh underneath. The fish had been seasoned spectacularly well, salty and spicy and delicious; each bite of crunchy, fried skin was incredibly savory, each morsel of tender white meat fantastically good. I spent half the meal gushing about that fish, even after we’d finished picking all the flesh off the bones and crunched the fins between our teeth. I may have said that its very existence on this earth was proof that God loved us and wanted us to be happy.* I did not shut up about this fish for quite some time.
*It should be noted that I am pretty much an atheist.
Sometime after the Fish of Divine Revelation, they brought us the sashimi platter and little bowls of rice. Up to this point, we’d had a pretty awesome meal, and I am sad to say that the tide turned a little bit. The tuna was great, dark and meaty on the tongue; the salmon was sweet, buttery, and melted in the mouth. But some of the other fish had obviously just been defrosted, and not all the way; a couple of slices were cold and grainy with ice crystals, and one piece was so partially-frozen that it even crunched between my teeth. We soldiered on, drenching the frozen bits in soy sauce, and I saved some lovely bits of fat salmon for last. But it did put a pall over the dining experience.
When we’d had enough, the waitress showed up again… with a big bowl of hot, spicy tofu soup and even more panchan. There was cooked fish in the soup, which looked like the same kind of smallish fish that we’d eaten fried earlier. Although I’d previously felt that I couldn’t stuff much more in my stomach, I found that the tofu soup really hit the spot; I found myself putting away even more helpings of soup, tofu, and pieces of delectable fish.
We stumbled out of there stuffed to the gills. (After that much seafood, I could almost believe that I had gills.) It was a great experience. We’d definitely go back. But maybe not for the sashimi.