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Turning Koreanesa

Around here that means Lakewood

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I’ve dabbled for years in the Korean community, tasting this and that, writing down my favorite places. Recently, however, I ran into a friend looking for a road map of sorts to the Korean restaurants along South Tacoma Way.

An adventurer at heart, he recently returned to the South Sound ready to explore a world away right in our neighborhood. With cash in his pocket, he wanted to feel, see, taste and hear first hand the Korean culture without buying a ticket for the 12-hour trip over the Pacific. The following is the treasure map I scribbled out for him.

First a few words on banchan

If you dine Korean, after you order or sometimes before, 15 little bowls of goodies will land on your table. First timers often say things like, “I didn’t order this,” or “how much is this,” or, “what is it?”

It’s banchan — the little bowls of side dishes that typically accompany a Korean meal. Even at home, Koreans enjoy these side dishes, small helpings of items like black beans, radish, kimchi, bean sprouts and marinated potato.

Don’t be afraid — some of the items have a little heat, but all taste perfectly “normal.”

First stop

I always worry folks will skip this venue because the name reminds me of Piggly Wiggly. But, starting here offers the best introduction to Korean food because the quality is high and the fun of cooking your own meat tableside is worlds apart from Applebee’s.

The Honey Pig (9104 S. Tacoma Way, Lakewood), once known as Dorribon, features traditional Korean menu items, but the real joy is ordering a heaping plate of meats — shaved, marinated, on the bone — a buffet for the carnivore. Accompanied by banchan, the Honey Pig’s execution and flavors taste divine. Great service too.

Across the street

In Asia, bakeries exist on nearly every corner — more so than in the United States. Manmi Bakery (9205 S. Tacoma Way, Lakewood) best represents the lightness the Koreans put into their baked goods. It’s near impossible to turn down the sweet cakes, cookies and tapioca buns; the latter are made with chewy tapioca flour filled with mild, sweet, red bean paste. Also enjoyable are the empanada-like pastries called Dutch bread. And the cakes with glazed fruit across the top — don’t get me started — heaven.

Next, get naked

Ok, my friend is a boy and he had to skip this next stop, but to address the Korean culture in the area, you must get acquainted with the naked spa — open only to women.

The Olympus Spa (8615 S. Tacoma Way, Lakewood) borrows on the Korean tradition of “ttaemiri” or scrub culture — the act of scouring the body raw to feel absolutely clean and smooth. Lot’s of Westerners have discovered the space and swear by the service. In addition, the spa offers a small restaurant inside — women only again — which serves small but excellent Korean food (according to my sources). The Korean beef, I hear, ranks high, but it is Chef Hyekgoung Simpkins’ banchan and vegetables that get all the raves.

Back across the street

The Palace Restaurant and Café (8718 S. Tacoma Way, Lakewood) ranks as my favorite traditional Korean restaurant. The meat is prepared in the kitchen, not table side, and the crowds are a strong mix between Koreans and non-Koreans.

The menu is complete. Items are in both Korean and English, so you don’t need to feel lost. But why worry, just order the Korean barbecue (short ribs) — it’s all that matters (maybe not, but clearly my favorite). The sweet soy-sugar and garlic sauce is seared into the meat. The quality of cut is what you’d expect from a place charging $12. The only difference here is the short ribs are flaming hot. I think I left my fingerprints on the bones.

Are there other Korean places to visit. Of course, lots. But, start with these — get your bearings — see what quality tastes like and then discover more.

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