34 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY JUNE 20-26, 2024 www.montereycountynow.com As Max Hong tells the story, he was at home one evening with his wife after a long day tending to their Japanese restaurants when a switch flipped. “Everyone knows Japanese food,” he recalls thinking. “I want to serve Korean food.” It took a few weeks, but Hong transformed his Seaside ramen spot, Kokoro Bowls & Rolls, into Bada Korean Kitchen. The couple began testing menu items during a soft reopening and plans to have a final list ready by the end of June. Called in to help a struggling Carmel Burger Bar, Ashley Wolff hit upon the same idea—although the transition to Jeju Kitchen has been more measured and the response to a lineup where a cheeseburger sits alongside kimchi-spiked pork belly soup momentarily baffling. “People look at the menu and are confused, until they see a Korean at the door,” she explains. Normally, the addition of two restaurants would not signal a tremor in the culinary landscape. It brings the number of places in Monterey County with a dedicated Korean menu to six— seven if you count Ttobongee Chicken. Yet there is a K-trend taking shape. Bulgogi House opened in downtown Monterey in 2023, replacing a sushi counter. Also in 2023, stars of a Korean reality television show descended upon Marina, where they installed a popup restaurant. According to the Food Institute, demand for bibimbap, galbi and other traditions jumped 90 percent in 2021 alone. Even tried and true chains like KFC have added Korean flavors. “I think it’s perfect timing,” Hong observes. Hong and his wife Sumin teased guests during their soft reopening with dishes like dduk bok gi (also spelled tteokbokki; there’s a degree of difficulty in the translation), a plate of rice and fish cakes that rapidly engages all the senses and leaves a flickering heat on the palate. Doenjang jjigae was another offering, a stew that pits bright, fresh flavors against the pungent richness of fermented soybean paste. “My wife has so many ideas, but she’s not sure everyone will like her recipes,” Hong says. “Traditional Korean has strong, strong flavor.” Some culinary historians have suggested that the intensity of Korean dishes is one reason the regional style has been slow to catch on in the U.S. A study prepared by historian KyouJin Lee and published in the Journal of the Korean Society of Food Culture estimated that just four Korean restaurants existed in Manhattan in the early 1960s, growing to just 18 by the ’70s Writing in the New York Times in 1999, Florence Fabricant still found the cuisine a bit mysterious, noting it was out there “just waiting to be discovered.” The South Korean government noticed, too. In 2009, at a time when there were less than 10,000 Korean restaurants outside of the South’s borders, they began promoting the country’s food and culture in a global campaign. Now Statista estimates 40,000 are in operation around the world, with 5,200 in the U.S. The timing was indeed right. Since the early 1990s, the American palate has become much more adventurous. Wolff points out that one of the favorite dishes at Jeju Kitchen is jajangmyeon, a noodle bowl draped in a swarthy black bean sauce that ripples with earthiness yet has a sweet and calming side. It’s Korean comfort fare. Not all dishes are so exotic. KFC—in this case an acronym for Korean fried chicken—is served by many Asian fusion kitchens. For Hong, it’s a way for people to ease into familiarity with the flavor profile. “If you’re scared to try Korean food, try deep fried chicken first,” he insists. Kalbi—also styled as galbi—is already popular in the U.S., introduced as Korean-style short ribs. “We’re going to do bone-in,” Wolff notes. “It’s more traditional.” Wolff was born in Seoul. Her mother owned restaurants in Carmel, including Pangaea Grill, a pan-Asian fusion destination where just a few items—kalbi, japchae, kimchi jjigae—on an extensive menu was enough for Weekly readers to name it Best Korean. The Hongs are Korean as well. Both of their parents own dining establishments in the home country. “They will be OK, we will be OK,” Hong says. “People will open more Korean restaurants. It’s time for Korean food.” FIRST COURSE Ashley Wolff of Jeju Kitchen in Carmel, where the menu is moving from American to Korean. “It’s going really well,” she says of the reception from diners. SPIN TOPS…Starting Thursday, June 20, The Wine House is hosting Vinyl Nights. Bring your records, if they fit the theme (this time: the ’90s). It happens every other Thursday. 1 E. Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley. 298-7438, thewinehousecv.com. CHEERIO…The Great British Bake Shop has made the difficult decision to close. Their last day in business will be Friday, June 21. We know you’re gutted, so be sure to pop by and stock up on your favorite British meat pies. 8 W. Gabilan St., Salinas. 356-0005, thegreatbritishbakeshop.com. PLANT-BASED POZOLE…Head to the Cesar Chavez Library on Friday, June 21 at 4pm for a free bilingual cooking demonstration hosted by Blue Zones Project of Monterey County. Learn how to make plant-based pozole, so you can make this meal—all the flavor, a lot less cholesterol—at home. Cesar Chavez Library. 615 Williams Road, Salinas. 758-7345, salinaspubliclibrary.org. FUN IN THE SUN…Celebrate the summer solstice at Earthbound Farmstand on Friday, June 21 from 5:30pm until dusk. Guests will enjoy a family-style feast in the field by Chef Hollie Jackson, desserts by Tart and Tin, and local wines by Seabold Cellars. There is live music and guests get a goodie bag to take home. $185. 7250 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley. 6256219, earthboundfarm.com/farm-stand. SPIRIT ANIMALS…Cella Restaurant barkeep Joshua Perry is hosting the inaugural Coastal Cocktail Clash, in which 12 of the area’s best bartenders will battle it out behind the bar. On Monday, June 24 you can watch them put their mixology skills to the test while enjoying drinks and small bites. Doors open at 6pm. $25/in advance, $30/at the door; tickets at opentable.com. OVER THE HUMP…Seventh & Dolores is now open on Wednesdays, giving you six days a week to enjoy a thick steak, craft cocktail or a fine wine. 7th Avenue and Dolores Street, Carmel. 293-7600, 7dsteakhouse.com. MAJESTIC MARINUS…Bernardus Winery is hosting its first-ever public event at the Marinus Vineyard on Sunday, June 30. Tour the property and get to chat with winemaker Jim McCabe, followed by a Tuscan-inspired lunch catered by Chef Tim Wood. $300 for club members, $350 for non-members. 298-8021, bernardus.com. By Jacqueline Weixel MORSELS eatanddrink@montereycountynow.com “People will open more Korean restaurants.” EAT + DRINK DANIEL DREIFUSS Special K Two restaurants make the switch to Korean menus as interest in the cuisine grows. By Dave Faries