Aurora's Havana Street is awash with some of the most diverse ethnic cuisine in the Denver metro area; the cultural landscape is primed with every kind experience, from fine-ish dining to lovable dives to mom and pop eateries from almost every nationality and culture: Ethiopian, Vietnamese pho, dollar-a-scoop Chinese, Mexican seafood, Cuban bakeries, and barbecue startup trucks. This stretch of semi-urban street makes for some colorful dining, so I'll be giving you my fitty-cent tour every week, complete with all the color, flavor and commentary of my ‘hood.
Oh glorious banchan!—your tiny, savory portions of chilled veggies, protein slices and pickled things are the very best reason to eat at Korean restaurants. And Havana Street staple Seoul Korean BBQ & Sushi has been around since 2007 to assure that no diner is left behind in the race to see exactly how many mini-bowls of kimchi they can suck down in one sitting. If it wasn’t for my visit being happy-interrupted by distracted service, I would consider making this my go-to spot for superior sushi, luscious hotpots of meat and rice, and ALL the banchan.
Seoul BBQ’s modest lobby was packed on a Tuesday night, and the wait was about fifteen minutes — not excruciating, but calling ahead to make reservations is a good idea. I was seated at one of the tables in the way back next to the server hydration station (the expo ledge where they leave all of their water bottles) and I also drew the short straw with my server, who stopped at the table just long enough to zip through my order and gallop away, forgetting to ask me if I wanted a beverage other than water (up-sell fail). I was mostly left to my own devices the whole time I was there, but at least a different server came by with my sushi appetizer and the banchan cart which gave me plenty to focus on.
The house special Seoul Tower is a creation of stacked rice, avocado, crab, tobiko (flying fish roe), masago (smelt roe), and tender cuts of tuna and salmon in a delicious pool of eel sauce, topped with spicy mayo, sriracha, seaweed salad and crispy seaweed shreds. This was a beauty of textures, flavors and colors, and tasted like heaven.
I had literally taken one bite of the tower, and hadn't even had time to explore the tiny bowls when the entrée soups were unceremoniously unloaded by server guy, who then vanished into the ether for the rest of the meal. The feast laid out before me was formidable—two boiling hot pots of stew, soondae-guk beef bone stew with Korean blood sausage and daeji-bulgogi ttukbaegi, spicy pork stew. The blood sausage stew was inundated with green onions and the chunks of sausage quickly dissolved in the hot broth to make an appealing mash of iron-rich meat at the bottom of the bowl. The addition of a few scoops of rice, a few spoonfuls of fermented bean paste, and an entire bowl of salty dried fish served to build additional layers of flavor. The pork stew was gorgeous, with chili sauce, pickled radish and long slices of fatty pork made even better with added kimchi.
The glorious array of banchan was almost overwhelming. There were dishes of cold cooked greens with sesame seeds and sweet red peppers, pickled zucchini slices with chili, sweet and smoky sweet potato nubbins, tiny salty shrimp, more pickled radish, boiled squash, several different bowls of kimchi, a seriously tasty portion of calamari in sweet chili sauce — and then a weird bowl of that mayo-squishy cold macaroni salad that never quite seems to fit in with everything else. It’s too close to American picnic macaroni salad for my personal tastes, but it was well-made, if a bit sweet. The totori muk (acorn jelly) always interests me because I have never liked it, but I try it in every Korean restaurant thinking I might get turned around. The milky-tan colored jello rectangles always taste like vinegar and sesame seeds; despite my best effort yet again, I still didn't like it, even though it appeared to be a well-made version.
Then the sad part of the meal happened. This was the part where I realized my server had possibly been distracted by a unicorn and disappeared into the forest, so I had to try and track him down to get my check. My search was in vain, so I abandoned my leftovers and shambled to the host stand to pay. It’s gloomy that lousy service can affect an otherwise stellar meal experience, and I would eat at Seoul BBQ again, but perhaps at lunch, in a different section, with a different server who at least gave baseline attention. I’m not a particularly needy diner, but I also don’t want to dehydrate or choke to death all alone.