Korean Food

Posted on May 18, 2009 – 8:21 PM | by beckler
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One thing I like about Korean food it its eccentricity.  It seems to me that the standard practice of offering slightly different types of banchan (the little free snacks that precede the meal) every day encourages a certain looseness and creativity in the kitchen that I enjoy.  Pine Tree House has remarkable banchan.  It is presented ceremoniously and elegantly, and when all the tiny bowls of colorful food are arranged on the table, they are as satisfying to the eye as a well-composed abstract painting.  The interior of the restaurant is comfortable and relaxing.  The lighting is dim and most booths are rendered semi-private by low partitions.  It’s too bad they detract from the ambiance somewhat by having a muted Korean TV station playing constantly in the corner.pine tree

One constant with the banchan is a silky egg custard that blends wonderfully with a bit of Pine Tree House’s mild kimchee.  The kimchee is served with scissors, which are the ideal tool for portioning bite-sized bits.  The chef has a way with greens, and a common banchan is a plate of raw, earthy and slightly bitter lettuce dressed simply with a bit of chili oil.  Another standout was a dish of kelp-like branching greens with sharp raw garlic and onion, also with chili oil.  One leafy dish (I really wish I knew the names of all the vegetables!) had so much complexity in each bite that it bordered on avante-garde cuisine.  It was bitter, salty, and even faintly perfume-y all at the same time.  Two in our party liked it, one didn’t. Other banchan included delicate shavings of sweet cucumber with daikon and intensely salty octopus with raw garlic and jalapenos.  As with other Korean restaurants, Pine Tree House is no place for anyone with an aversion to salt.  You can dilute the salinity of the dishes with the wholesome barley tea that accompanies the meal, but you’ll have to ask for a glass of water.  The otherwise accommodating servers don’t bring it as a matter of course.

When you order your main dishes be sure to ask for the traditional brown rice.  It has a purplish hue and is dotted here and there with red beans.  Once the server spoons it out into individual bowls, she will pour hot water from a tea pot onto the remaining rice clinging to the sides of  the iron rice bowl to create a sort of palate-cleansing porridge to consume after your meal.

On my first visit I ordered an appetizer which contained rice cakes that are very similar to mochi.  This dish was the only true misfire that I have encountered at Pine Tree house.  It was very spicy, and the abundant quantity of chili powder in the thick red gravy rendered it unpleasantly grainy.  The rice cakes were somewhat hard and after I sampled it this dish sat at our table, untouched.  That was also due to the fact that I was gorging myself on banchan and the other dishes.

pine treeIn service to you, the reader, I know I should attempt to sample a wide variety of dishes, and I feel foolish when I realize that in the three times I visited Pine Tree House I ordered the kimchee stew (jjigae) and the barbecued short ribs thrice, but that will give you an indication of how much I loved these two dishes.  The short ribs are exemplary.  They are thinly sliced-each slice attached to a sliver of bone-and rimmed with sweet and succulent fat.  They are chewy and addictive.  The kimchee jjigae has a delectable broth that exhibits a perfect balance of sourness and richness.  The tangy flavor is provided by the kimchee, and the richness by the bits of pork. 

I also tried the bibimbap at Pine Tree House, and I found it to be the same as every other bibimbap I’ve sampled: bland.  I’ve never understood why many consider this dish to be the dish by which to judge the quality of a Korean restaurant.  I’m more interested in the fiery dishes, but if you love bibimbap, P.T.H. has a top-notch version.  I also had a whole fried fish which was on the “Korean specialties” portion of the menu.  It was fresh-grilled and lightly smoky and was excellent when eaten with the fatty skin.

There are some other, rather pricey, dishes on the menu which are meant to be shared by parties of three or more and many of them sound very intriguing-such as “jockbar” (sliced pigs feet), and “kul bossam” (described as “tangy pork belly and oyster with radish and napa cabbage).  I wish my craving for the kimchee jigae and short ribs hadn’t prevented me from sampling these unfamiliar dishes.  I vow to try them and post about it on the MidMo blog, so keep checking!

Each meal at Pine Tree House ends with a lovely touch-a cup of intensely sweet cold cinnamon and ginger tea.  The tea is deep red and two pine nuts float prettily on top. The slightly surprising flavor and quirky visual of this dish sums up the experience of dining at Pine Tree House in a teacup.

Undeniably, the most noteworthy thing about Chicken and Pizza Love Letter is its name, but I was hoping that it would also distinguish itself with its food.  I have mixed feelings about the bill of fare, so I thought I’d write C.A.P.L.L. a love letter.  Or more like a “Dear John” letter, as you’ll see.

chicken and pizzaDear Chicken and Pizza,

I’m pretty upset with both of you, but I’m going to address Chicken first.  I had high hopes for you, Chicken, because my only other exposure to Korean-style fried chicken had been at a hidden nook in Manhattan’s Koreatown.  I had read about the Korean way of preparing fried chicken, which is to rotisserie it first, and then to flash fry without batter.  In this way, your flesh stays moist, while your skin is paper thin and crisp.  This lunch, washed down with many Korean beers, was one of the most memorable of my life.  Perhaps it was not fair to judge you, Chicken, against this earlier chicken, but I couldn’t help it-I’m still not over it.

I ordered two platters of you, one spicy and one plain.  I was nervous about seeing you again after so long, so I ordered a 1.6 liter Hite beer.  It was served in a giant plastic bottle with a frosty mug on the side.  Your spicy incarnation was bright red, sweet and sticky-with a pleasing vinegar tang.  Your skin was thick and crunchy, rather than paper thin and crispy, and your meat was tasty. Your plain incarnation was-I’m sorry-unexciting.  Overall, Chicken, I love you, but I’m not in love with you.

Now Pizza, no one could accuse you of being dull, not considering that you come in wild flavors such as sweet potato and bulgogi-all containing meat.  You’re not very friendly to vegetarians.  The sweet potato was sweet and smoky, with a sweet potato-stuffed crust.  How do you even get that in there?  Never mind, maybe I don’t want to know.  Your potato version was soft-with mashed potatoes mixed in with the cheese-and the bits of green pepper and sausage with fennel providing a good textural contrast.  Your bulgogi was pedestrian.  In fact, not to be a snob, but, Pizza-despite your exotic flavors-your soft crust and obviously cheap cheese reminded me of nothing so much as that skating rink pizza that I used to see in the 90’s.  The truth hurts, doesn’t it?  Maybe it’s time for you to take a good long look in the mirror, Pizza.

And now I’ll mention how you both really hurt me.  When I tried to inquire about preparation methods to our friendly server, she told me that you were had flown in, pre-prepared, from Korea!  That is like the opposite of the fresh, seasonal, local ethos that you know I hold so near and dear to my heart.  I guess in Korea you’re part of a big chain called Cheogajip.  So Chicken and Pizza Love Letter isn’t even your real name?  Honesty is really important to me, so I’m going to be honest with you: it was fun while it lasted, but I’m seeing someone else now (you don’t know him-he’s named Pine Tree House), and he makes me happier than you ever could.


Pine Tree House
9205-D Folsom Blvd
Sacramento, CA 95826
(916) 366-3323

Pizza and Chicken love Letter
2990 Bradshaw Road
Sacramento, CA 95827
(916) 369-2009

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