Inside, it’s more the same. Green, leafy plants set against a mottled green interior, fairly clean, brightly lit and typical of the stalwart standoffishness of Asian efficiency—as in make a mess, waitress with set grin stares the mess maker down before approaching with her dish rag and scooper to mop up the offending mess—a polite efficiency that embarrasses the culprit into quiet submission or a larger tip. The same quiet stare and polite smile that also judges the non-Korean’s table etiquette, not quite disproving, but not quite approving either.
This is not to say the waitresses completely judge and ignore us. Quite contrarily, they’re attentive, refilling half-filled water glasses; quieting noisy babies with pint-sized bowls of steamed white rice; ceremonially serving men their bowls of white rice scooped from earthenware pots before women get consideration; and satisfying restless children with empty ice cream cones which they fill to overflowing at the self-serve ice cream machine. Our Korean waitresses, like the Japanese, stay rooted in tradition and ritual presentation throughout the entire process.
And the menu is typical Korean fare of tofu bowls, tofu soups, rice bowls and marinated meat staples. The meals start with the arrival of the shared banchan, an assortment of 11 half-spicy, half-mild side dishes that more than fill us up before the main entrees arrive. Ours consist of a pajeon pancake with carrots and scallions; small sides of kimchi, a variety of vegetables, or namul, smothered in red chili paste, fried gluten rectangles, a steamed tofu mound dressed simply in a sesame-soy sauce, julienned daikon in creamy mayo, sliced green chili kimchi, and kongnamul, seasoned boiled bean sprouts. It’s all quite flavorful, a mix of sweet and savory, mild and hot, though fairly light on the heat factor.
We opt for small dinner portions of the marinated beef (bulgolgi), the sweet and savory beef short ribs combination plate (kalbi) accompanied by a hearty, substantial tofu-dumpling broth and Korean comfort food dolsot bibimbap, essentially a rice bowl filled with mixed veggies, marinated beef and topped by a raw egg that cooks against the sides of the bowl before being mixed into the piping hot contents. The sizzle, crack and pop of the rice bowl continues even long after the waitresses are taking their afternoon siesta in a nearby booth, the rice at the bottom of the bowl slowly crisping. Twenty minutes later, every loving, heated spoonful still brings tears to my eyes, and that’s not counting the srichacha dousing my bowl has undergone.
Seoul Restaurant and Tofu House may not be the most authentic representation of Korean cuisine, but it’s good enough to satisfy a family of four on a fairly set budget. With room to spare, of course!
Seoul Restaurant & Tofu House, 10560 Magnolia Ave., Riverside, (951) 785-0070. AE, D, MC, V.