So many Asian restaurants seem to be closed on Mondays, and I always seem to fall into this trap again and again. Today, I had driven down to Berkeley on another ramen mission, this time to Norikonoko on Telegraph, which is catty-corner from one of Berkeley’s best used book shops, Shakespeare & Company Books. I found a killer parking spot just off of the main drag, fed the meter full of coinage, and soon found out that Norikonoko was closed. Fortunately, Berkeley offers a target-rich environment when it comes to Asian cuisine, and Koryo Korean BBQ shares a courtyard with Norikonoko (and more importantly, they’re also open on Mondays).
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Bibimbap (or Bi Bim Bap, or Bibim Bap) will always remind me of the Culinary Institute of America, where this classic Korean comfort food played a memorable role in Cuisines of Asia. My good friend Phil insisted upon calling this dish “bibbity-bop” or “be-bop” or any other name that he might’ve improvised during lunch service. On the surface, this bastardization of the word “bibimbap” may seem culturally insensitive, except that Phil was a native of New Orleans, and jazz was part of his own heritage. I just chalked it up to Phil being homesick for the Big Easy, which was certainly understandable (odd random fact: in his 2006 book “The Reach of a Chef,” Michael Ruhlman authors a chapter called “Waiting for Bibimbap,” in which he name-checks Phil on page 81; yours truly is also mentioned in the very same paragraph, although not by name).
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Right off the top, I must admit that the bibimbap that we were slinging at the CIA was nothing like the bibimbap offered at Koryo Korean BBQ (no surprise, in Cuisines of the Americas, the jambalaya was nothing like New Orleans jambalaya, either). For one thing, our bibimbap didn’t sing on its way out to the table. The bibimbap at Koryo not only sings upon arrival, but depending on how fast you can eat with chopsticks, the dish may sing for most of the meal, as well. The super-heated, heavy stone bowl is the key, and it causes the rice to sizzle quite loudly, the soundtrack to shredding an over-easy egg with chopsticks, and then mixing it all together with more than half a dozen condiments (yet another feature that the CIA version lacked). The rice actually develops a golden-brown crust as it sits, sizzling away for minutes on end, adding a wonderful caramelized complexity to the dish. As the photo shows above, I placed the metal chopsticks on the bowl, and in the short time it took to snap the picture, they actually became too hot to hold. Then again, maybe I’ve just lost my kitchen hands.