When Inter Korea House opened in September of last year, my usual curiosity about food, service and atmosphere took a back seat to another overriding question:
What in the world were they thinking?
In a region where Korean restaurants were severely underrepresented at the time (a mere half dozen, by my count, in the entire Triangle) owner/chef Alex Park had chosen to locate his within a stone bowl’s throw of two of them. What’s more, both – Vit Goal Tofu, in an outparcel of the same shopping center, and Chosun Ok, just across the street – were firmly established with a strong following.
Park, a native of Seoul whose 15-plus years of experience cooking Stateside includes five restaurants he’s owned in Maryland and Virginia, certainly appeared to have the culinary credentials. But it didn’t look like marketing was a strong suit.
Still doesn’t, at least from the outside. More than a year after opening, Inter Korea House has yet to put up a website. If you want to see a menu, you’ll have to go to the restaurant.
It’s worth the trip. And, as it turns out, Inter Korea House brings something new to the table. According to Park, the “Inter” in the restaurant’s name is short for “International,” signifying that the menu is not, strictly speaking, Korean. The offering is a mix of traditional Korean fare and Chinese-Korean, which the chef describes as his native country’s equivalent to our Chinese-American.
Which explains the presence of dishes such as beef lo mein, pork fried rice and ma po tofu that are liberally sprinkled among the bibimbap, bulgogi and other Korean classics. The fusion fare is so popular among Koreans, in fact, that a few favorite Chinese-Korean dishes often appear on menus at restaurants billing themselves as strictly Korean.
To name one, jamp pong is a meal-in-a-bowl mixed seafood and noodle soup that I’ve long considered to be one of my favorite Korean dishes. Turns out it’s Chinese-Korean, according to Park. He spells it jjam bbong, and offers a mild and a spicy version. However you spell it, his rendition is as satisfying (and as authentically fiery, if you dare) as most I’ve had.
Yaki mandoo, aka fried dumplings, wouldn’t be out of place on a Chinese-American menu. Except that these crisp, golden crescents of dough are filled with a savory blend of minced beef and pork, and are considerably better than most. Like much of the chef’s offering, they’re made in house.
He also turns out a first-rate rendition of the seafood-and-scallion pancake, hae-mool pajeon, which is indisputably Korean. It’s listed as an entree but makes a fine shareable starter, if you’re so inclined. Just be sure to order it first, and wait a bit before ordering entrees. Inter Korea House follows the Asian custom of bringing out dishes as they’re done.
Personally, I like the “when in Rome” philosophy. It makes for a refreshing break from the Western appetizer-entree routine. You needn’t even worry about mistakenly ordering a dish that’s too hot for your taste, since your server (Park’s wife, Jin, in all likelihood) will warn you if you appear to be venturing into dangerous territory.
That’s precisely what she’ll do if you order khan pung sal, which the menu innocuously describes as “fried chicken with garlic & pepper sauce.” Heed her advice, unless a more accurate description – thin strips of lightly battered fried chicken in a sauce riddled with the shrapnel of fresh and toasted red chiles - makes your mouth water in anticipation. It does mine, even as I remember it.
Bulgogi dolsot bibimbap combines two signature dishes of the Korean repertoire in one, serving them up in a heated stone bowl. Thin petals of beef, marinated and barbecued Korean-style (that’s the bulgogi), are framed in a bright pinwheel of vegetables atop a bed of rice (that’s the bibimbap). Add chile paste to taste, toss, and enjoy.
Park offers a seafood version of the dolsot bibimbap, which comes topped with the traditional egg (available as an option on the beef version). There’s also a “cold” (or more precisely, room temperature) bibimbap, which should prove especially welcome when the weather warms up.
Regardless of what you order, your meal will start with banchan, a complimentary assortment of pickles and condiments – including the spicy fermented cabbage dish, kimchee, that I can never seem to get enough of. Fortunately, Jin Park generously replenishes as needed. She’ll also pour you a gratis cup or two of toasted barley tea, though you may have to ask for it.
Inter Korea House’s two small dining rooms are modestly furnished, but they’re much cheerier than the strip mall (which, notwithstanding its location at a highly trafficked intersection near RTP, has managed to look half-deserted for at least a decade) would lead you to expect.
Those rooms have been well-filled both times I’ve visited, too. Looks like Alex Park is a pretty savvy marketer after all.
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