Korean Bibimbap at Jong Ga House
Waiters scurry to deliver sizzling meat platters and fiery soups and stews to diners at Jong Ga House. But the bustle gives way to gracious service the moment one is seated in the airy dining rooms with intricate woodwork worthy of a traditional Korean home. Waiters immediately ply guests with a complimentary bowl of cold kimchi noodle soup and a dozen little side dishes that blanket the table. These banchan, an integral part of many Korean meals, provide a balance of flavors and may include crimson-flecked cabbage kimchi, pink pickled radish shreds, green bean tempura, rolled omelet, chewy fish cake, crispy cubes of fried potato, cooling mung bean jelly, and my favorite, japchae, slippery glass noodles made from sweet potato, stir fried in sesame oil, topped with mushrooms or spinach.
Although I’ve enjoyed the seafood pancake and buckwheat noodle soup with beef and pickled radish at this popular Grand Avenue dining spot, I often return to the bibimbap ($10.95), a color wheel of vegetables topped with a fried egg and tender, marinated beef bulgogi over a bed of rice. Each vegetable is lightly cooked separately and valued for not only its taste, but for its healthful properties as well. Spinach, red pepper, mung beans, shredded carrots, zucchini and radish are common components. The brimming bowl is accompanied by an essential Korean condiment: gochujang (chili pepper paste) so you can spice the dish to taste as you mix its elements together. (Bibim means mixed, and bap is rice).
Bibimbap, whose co-mingling of separate ingredients is said to symbolize co-existence and cooperation, is a treasured, classic of Korean cuisine, dating back a few hundred years. Several theories are offered to explain its origin: from a royal snack for a king who got hungry between meals to a convenient one-dish meal for hurried peasants who possessed few plates.
After a satisfying bowl of bibimbap — plus the extra dimensions of flavor provided by assorted banchan — the friendly service at Jong Ga House concludes with a cup of sweet fermented rice tea for dessert.
Jong Ga House, 372 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-444-7658, www.jonggahouse.com