Spicy noodles are enough to keep you coming back to Silla
I love Asian noodles: ramen, pho, Vietnamese bun bo Hue, Nepalese thupka, Taiwanese beef noodle soup. In the winter, I slurp bowl after bowl of hot broth, noodles and chunks of meat, ideally with some animal collagen to make the mix thick, velvety and rib-stickingly hearty. In spring, as the cold months give way to warm patio weather, my obsession morphs and I begin craving cold noodle dishes like naeng myun.
This preparation originated in northern Korea — probably in the city of Hamhung — sometime during the Joseon Dynasty (which, uh, means anytime between 1392 and 1897, though it was likely created in the later years of that era), then spread south in the last century. All versions of naeng myun rely on long buckwheat noodles, about the width of angel hair pasta; sometimes they're bathed in cold broth and sometimes they're topped with raw fish. My favorite variation is bibim naeng myun, a chilled bowl filled with noodles doused in cold, tangy sauce loaded with spicy chiles and topped with bits of raw vegetables — cabbage, radish and cucumber — and strips of supple, boiled beef, then finished with a hard-boiled egg. Bibim means "mixed," and the diner is supposed to thoroughly toss these ingredients before diving into the bowl.
The combination of crisp produce, cool noodles and earthy spice carries the same hint of summer as a warm spring day in Denver. So when temperatures rose into the 70s a few weeks back, I set out for Silla, a Korean barbecue joint named for an ancient kingdom that occupied the country's southern region, because it serves some of the best bibim naeng myun in town. Yong K. Lee, who moved to the States from Korea two decades before he went into the restaurant business, opened Silla in this Aurora strip mall over fifteen years ago. The place is dark, with lacquered tables and booths that have seen better days. But while Silla's appearance may have waned over the years, its clientele has not. On Saturday night, the dining room was buzzing with families chattering about their weeks, meat sizzling as it hit the grills in the tabletops, and the electronic chime of the call button fitted to each table regularly piercing through the commotion. A busy staff scurried through the rows of tables, trying to keep up.
We nabbed the last booth in the room, and I hit the call button to order a large Hite beer, forsaking the soju and sake list in favor of something light and crisp to go with the fiery bibim naeng myun. I made the mistake — once — of not using the call button, trying to instead stare down those scuttling servers with a manic look in my eyes. It didn't work. You have to push the button; it's the only way you'll ever get to order. And even then, you might not be able to order everything exactly the way you want it. In addition to the cold noodles, we ordered boolgogi — sliced ribeye marinated in garlic, soy sauce and sugar — not so much because we thought we needed more food, but because we wanted to try grilling the meat at the table. No such luck.
"Usually with one order, we cook it in the back," our server explained, then turned on her heel. She soon returned with a consolation prize, our banchan: small, heavy dishes filled with cold bean sprouts in sesame oil, pickled cucumbers and broccoli, salty strips of chewy dried fish, squares of razor-thin dried seaweed, and two kinds of kimchi. One was made from the traditional Napa cabbage, lightly fermented until slightly wilted (a little too wilted for my taste) and then coated with just enough chile-pepper-flake-infused oil to give it a mild buzz; the other was cubed radish, pickled until the edges gave easily under the teeth and covered with the same bright-orange brine as the cabbage. The banchan, which came with a dish of hot rice, are designed to be polished off over the course of the meal — and replaced, if the first round isn't sufficient. But as soon as our boolgogi arrived, I knew we were doomed to rudely leave leftovers behind.
The heaping pile of ribeye was still sizzling on a hot pan, caramelizing around the edges as the arousing aroma of garlic, sesame and other seasonings wafted toward us. I dug in with my chopsticks before the meat had stopped hissing with heat and immediately singed the roof of my mouth, but kept chewing. The grilled beef was fork-tender and juicy, the sweet-savory marinade locked explosively into every bite; given how well it was cooked, I was glad the kitchen had done the work for us. I was so busy eating that it took a few minutes for me to realize that Silla doesn't serve its barbecue with leafy greens, which you normally use to wrap the meat — but that just meant there was nothing to distract from the protein.
We'd made a sizable dent in the boolgogi when another waiter came over with a silver bowl brimming with sliced and julienned cucumbers, cabbage and radish, ribbons of beef and a hard-boiled egg. We watched, ravenous again, as he used scissors to cut the nest of dark-gray buckwheat noodles underneath it all.
"Mix well," he said when he finally set down the dish. We quickly obeyed, stirring all of the ingredients until the noodles were tinged the color of rust. Silla's bibim naeng myun (listed on the menu as "yu-chun chik bibim nengmyun") is a little soupier than many renditions I've had, thanks to a thinner sauce that sits at the bottom of the bowl until, slowly, it's absorbed by the noodles and flavors the spongy meat and crisp veggies. But that didn't matter; zesty and tinged with an ambrosial honey flavor, countered by soy sauce, salt, a bite of chile and a dusting of peanuts, this broth was good enough to drink straight.
By the time we were done with the noodles, there was no returning to the boolgogi or banchan, so I waved over our check, which came with a traditional cup of sweet, cold rice-water sikhye. The meal was exactly what I'd wanted.
I've satisfied other cravings at Silla, too. The bibimbob is another standout dish, a roaring-hot stone pan covered with a massive pile of rice topped with marinated, grilled beef, shredded carrots, bean sprouts, sesame seeds and a quivering poached egg. You pierce the egg yolk, throw on as much tangy red chili sauce as you can stomach and then mix everything together, trying to capture the moment when the bottom layer of rice has become pleasantly crunchy but not yet scorched. I'll sometimes stop by for a takeout order of kimchi mandu, fat dumplings made of steamed, translucent dough plump with fiery, fermented cabbage and bean sprouts. Along with the mandu, I once added an order of gool jun: oyster pancakes, with the oysters encased in eggy batter. But the oysters tasted mealy and off that night, and I've never been able to bring myself to try another round. And I rarely go just for the barbecue: Despite the mouthwatering marinades, it never seems worth the price. The saewoo gui, for example, nets you about eight pink prawns for twenty bucks.
But the naeng myun is more than enough to keep me coming back to Silla. During the hot months ahead, just thinking about those spicy noodles is enough to make me keep my cool.
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