This versatile kitchen's flavors sing

Posted: March 30, 2008

Before the music, there was beef, fire and spice.

Of course, "music" is a generous description for the impassioned howling that resonated from the hive of private karaoke rooms lining the ground floor of this obscure industrial building.

But with enough soju rice liquor to wet the vocal cords, and a belly full of some of city's best charcoal-grilled Korean meats, a microphone suddenly looks so much more inviting.

Me do U-2? Pass the kimchi and spicy rice cakes. It's a Friday night out in the chile-fired heart of North Philly's Koreatown, and I'm feeling fine. (Cue the lyrics!)

You won't find a listing for Everyday Good House in the phone book. And unless you read signs written in Korean characters, it's likely you'd drive right by this innocuous hulk of a building on the southeast corner of Front Street and Olney Avenue.

It's a good thing my friends, Ah-Young and Wilson, knew exactly where they were going on my first lunchtime foray here. Because I was already pleasantly surprised from the moment we stepped up through the front door of Everyday Good House.

The barbed wire-fringed exterior of this multilevel structure is foreboding. But inside awaited a warm, dark-wood dining room, with maroon-and-gold banners streaming along the ceiling, and starry lights strung from a picture window looking out across the Tacony Creek.

It was the smell of sizzling, garlic-rubbed meat, though, that brought me to my seat. Unlike many Korean barbecue restaurants that heavily marinate their beef, Good House has a reputation for a lighter hand, Ah-Young tells me. And true to form, the restaurant's special marinated beef ribs (kalbisal jumulruk) arrive on a platter with only a last-minute shine of sesame oil, soy and garlic. The ribbon-thin slices of raw beef are so gorgeous, their ruby hue laced with intricate white marbling, I want to taste this meat.

All we need is the glowing heat of the charcoal brazier our waitress delivers and ignites at the center of our table, and I'm in carnivore heaven, carefully searing both sides atop a pierced grill plate that looks like a shiny hubcap.

We wrap each hot piece inside a crunchy package of red leaf lettuce smeared with spicy fermented soybean paste (ssamjang), a jalapeño chip, and a tangy pouf of shredded scallion salad, and devour this feast morsel by morsel. Hot and cold. Spicy and savory. The fresh crunch of greens against the tender chew of fat-glistened meat. Each bite is a riot of textures and sparking flavors.

The jebichuri (a.k.a. "rope meat"), which we later identify as skirt steak, arrives unseasoned but vividly marbled. After a caramelizing sear, followed by a dip in seasoned sesame oil, this piled-high platter of meat disappears, too, at an alarming pace.

Meat is the focal point, of course, at any Korean barbecue, and Everyday Good House offers a small but quality selection - including a pork belly cooked on a fat-draining griddle by our friendly and attentive waitress, Kim, that tasted like uncured bacon. There was also a splendid bulgogi, thinly sliced rib eye tenderized by a marinade of Asian pear juice, sesame oil, garlic and soy that had the perfect balance of tart and sweet.

But there were so many other impressive details about my meals here, that I've come to believe that owner-chef Song Park - who arrived from Seoul as an experienced cook in 2004, then bought this space with her family in 2006 - runs one of the most versatile Korean kitchens in town.

She produces at least nine different banchan every day. These tiny dishes of pickled and spicy hors d'oeuvres are complimentary before every meal, and ranged from stellar classics, like her brightly spiced napa cabbage kimchi, to less common items like raw squid ribbons in rust-colored chile sauce, tender shreds of beef braised in a dark sweet gravy, and roasted green chiles tossed with silvery threads of tiny, chewy fish.

One day we're given an invigorating bowl of mul kimchi, or "kimchi water," an ice-cold clear liquid that zings with jalapeño spice and crunchy batons of pickled daikon. When I return for a weekend night of grilled meat and karaoke, the meal began with addictively crisp rounds of potato, sliced lengthwise and freshly fried to an ideal tempura crunch.

There were perfect Korean pancakes, those pizza-sized, eggy rounds laden with cuttlefish, shrimp and scallions at one meal; crunchy bits of kimchi and tender morsels of pork at another. A hot stone bowl of dolsot bibimbap brought a bed of heat-crisped rice topped with veggies, seasoned ground beef, and snappy royal ferns.

And there were chile-zapped stews of every variety: soodubu casserole filled with a pudding of silken tofu turned sunburst red by kochukaru spice powder; doenjang chigae, a Koreanized variation on miso soup, spiked with the tang of fermented soybean paste; and also Ah-Young's Seoul-food favorite, a spicy seafood broth brimming with sacks of poached whiting roe, nature's own fish sausage.

While these brews would make any tender-tongued debutante sweat, the raw spice here was ultimately less blazing than in other Korean meals I've had. Still, you can do no better to quench the burn than slurp a bowl of chik mool naengmyun, a nest of chewy black arrowroot-buckwheat noodles submerged in a vinegar-braced beef broth so frigid it is slushy with bits of ice.

Of course, some cold Hite lager and swimmingly smooth soju Korean rice liquor will also dull the spice. They will also stoke the courage needed for the evening's grand finale - a trip to the underworld of karaoke.

Singing to cheesy cover tunes in front of friends and strangers has become a phenomenon of Asian youth culture - making its way recently to Chinatown's sleek new Yakitori Boy. But in North Philly's Koreatown, it has long been hard-core. This is especially true at the New World karaoke parlor, a separate business three flights down below the Everyday Good House, where 18 private rooms fitted with black leather couches and music-wired TVs often rock on weekends until 5 a.m.

With a reservation made for us by the restaurant, we were among the first to arrive at 9:30, switch on the red-lit disco ball, and begin yowling for $30 an hour. The Bono and Springsteen impersonations were inflicted, mercifully, upon only a select group of forgiving friends.

Two hours later, though, every one of New World's closed-door rooms was ringing with unbridled, soju-juiced song - like an Asian dorm hall bounding through a happy night. By midnight, our voices were completely spent as we got into the car. But as we drove away, my lips still tingled with the flavors of an evening to be remembered for a very long time.


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