Seoul Survivors

There's such a thing as being treated a little too much like family in a family-owned restaurant--such as when the server's son sits himself down at your table and for two hours proceeds to pelt you with verbal bullets the way only a six-year-old can.

That was our fate recently at Ga Ya, an otherwise appealing Korean restaurant/smokeless barbecue helping to improve the ethnic-eatery wasteland that is Aurora. Owned by Seon and Nani Kim, Ga Ya boasts an engaging entranceway framed with silk lilacs and sided by a gorgeous and enormous piece of furniture that's part armoire and part chest of minuscule drawers, the entire thing inlaid with mother-of-pearl and other brightly colored bits of shell and stone. The piece leads up to the dining room, a series of booths centered by the "Genghis Khan" griddle that makes Korean tabletop barbecuing possible. The room is bordered by a four-piece wall mural depicting a breathtaking series of waterfalls. As we sat down, our impromptu host, Thomas, informed us the waterfalls are "somewhere in Korea. I'm going to Korea," he offered. "I've already been to New Jersey, New York and Colorado Springs."

Young Thomas proceeded to itemize the good and bad points of each place--about twelve apiece--as we perused the menu, which includes an extensive lunch roster as well as an eight-page list of dinner items and specialties available all the time. "My dad lives in Colorado Springs," Thomas volunteered. "I left New Jersey when I was three. That's when I was little, so I don't really remember much except that I didn't like it."

We liked the looks of the soups on the lunch list--puree of pumpkin, porridge of abalone and rice, porridge of pine nuts and rice--but Thomas's mother informed us that the kitchen was out of them, along with several other dishes that sounded interesting. So we settled for an order of saewoo gui ($12.95), shrimp to be barbecued at the table; a mandoo jungol hot pot ($23.95 for two) with meat dumplings; and chung uh gui ($6.50), or broiled herring. They were preceded by a selection of na mool, the pickled and cold-cooked side dishes that accompany every Korean meal and that always include the ubiquitous kimchi, lightly salted Napa cabbage perked up with garlic, ginger, scallions, chile flakes and a marinade of soy sauce, sugar and white vinegar.

Ga Ya's kimchi was respectable, and we picked at it along with the rest of the na mool: a smattering of caramelized seaweed, a chile-flecked stack of crunchy zucchini, agar agar (seawood gelatin) soaked in a sweetened soy sauce and sliced, and a bowl of mung beans, their irresistible nutty flavor enhanced by a filmy slick of sesame oil and white vinegar. As we snacked, Thomas stood at the end of our table, his arms spread out so his hands could support him, looking for all the world like he was about to tell us why he had called us all here. "I'm good at rollerblading," he said.

Too bad he wasn't good at helping roll the food out of the kitchen. We had purposely arrived at the end of the lunch rush--more like a trickle here--so we could linger over the barbecue, one of our family favorites. But we had now been lingering for 45 minutes with only a few pre-made salads to show for it. "I'm good at drawing fish," Thomas announced. We proved we were good at eating it when the ready-to-barbecue shrimp finally arrived. These were hardly the "jumbo" promised on the menu; in fact, they barely qualified as "medium." But they were sleek with the sugary marinade that intensifies on the grill, and we waited impatiently for each morsel to get just done enough so that we could snatch it off the flame and pop it into our mouths. Still, $12.95 was way out of line for eight small-to-medium shrimp, half a carrot's worth of angle-edged slivers, a quarter of a sliced onion and three broccoli flowerettes. But we were too hungry to care. Almost.

The hot pot also seemed overpriced, although it contained plenty of food. The seafood-based broth was brimming with tofu, ground-pork-filled dumplings, bubble-gum-colored balls of ground fish, fried fish cakes, fat noodles, carrots, onions and mung-bean sticks. Oh, and two broccoli flowerettes. "I'll be eating soon," Thomas said, rather wistfully. By now he was almost part of the family, and we felt as though we should offer him a snack--particularly since his mom was being very attentive to a gentleman at the other end of the restaurant. She kept walking past us and smiling and rolling her eyes, as if to say, Don't kids do the darnedest things? "I get to stay here until it closes," Thomas said. "Sometimes I get to help give people drinks. Sometimes it's really late when I get to leave."

We were wondering if our lunch would end the same way, when the intriguing herring appeared. A whole fish had been smoked and broiled until many of the hair-width bones were edible. The skin and outer layer of flesh had an intense charred flavor; the center meat was almost unbearably salty and fishy, in a good pleasure-pain sort of way. We picked at the herring until there wasn't enough water to slake our thirst, then tried to conjure up the last of our patience while we waited for the check. When my husband took the kids to the bathroom, Thomas looked at me and said, "So you're the only one left eating, huh?"

Thomas was nowhere in sight when we returned for a second visit. Not that our dinner was all that much quieter. With a four-year-old and a two-year-old, meals are not times of restful introspection, but there's definitely a higher threshold of endurance involved when they're your own kids. And Korean barbecue is an excellent distraction. We were all captivated by the delectable beef short ribs ($12.95) and the bul go gi ($10.95), sliced and marinated barbecued beef. Both meats were rich and chewy, with charred edges playing off the salty-sweet flavors of the soy sauce, rice vinegar, scallions, garlic, chile and toasted white sesame seeds that make up the typical Korean barbecue sauce. A thickened version of the sauce came on the side, along with the same na mool assortment we'd sampled at lunch.

This time we tried a different fish, the eundaegoo gui jungsik ($14.95). We couldn't choke down more than a few bites of the broiled black cod, which was as dry as fish jerky and incredibly salty. But the bibim naengmyun ($8.95) was excellent: tender slices of soft beef, cold buckwheat noodles, shredded cucumber and daikon and a poached egg, all drenched in a lush hot sauce.

That simple salad exemplified the beauty of Korean food, which gets its unique flavors from the seasonings--soy sauce, bean pastes, chile powder, ground sesame seeds--the country employs. A modest selection of seasonings, to be sure--but one Korean cooks use to good effect. Where Ga Ya--and many other Korean restaurants, for that matter--gets the idea that these modest ingredients add up to dishes worth three times as much as those at other Asian eateries, I don't know. But I do know that it translates into Korean food having a reputation for being pricey, a special-occasion cuisine. I don't think Ga Ya's almost-empty dining room--once at peak dinner hours on a Thursday night--is a commentary on the food, most of which is quite good. It's just too darned expensive.

Maybe we were paying for Thomas's floor show.

Ga Ya, 1042 South Peoria Street, 360-6560. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday.


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