The appeal of life in the big city is timeless. Budding poets may pine for Paris. Aspiring screen actors stream lemming-like to LA. Architects, artists, musicians and more see Manhattan as the Valhalla of the creative classes. Ah, the glamour, the culture, the sky-high rents…
Oh, that. The classic waiter-artist, waiter-actor paradigm of years past is being threatened by the cost of living in culturally desirable urban centers such as San Francisco — and the threat is having its impact on the restaurant business. If servers can’t afford to live anywhere near desirable dining destinations, then those restaurants need to rethink their staffing situations. As a result, a new, semi-self-serve format is emerging even among places with relatively ambitious menus. Watch for this to spread.
That we’re seeing a similar situation on Rittiman Road in San Antonio is likely due to factors other than high rent, but the result is the same for the diner: the restaurant (apparently called just “Korean Restaurant” in perhaps another cost-saving gesture) at the Korean Market is tucked away at the back of the retail operation, you place your order and pay at the kitchen window (the only menu is posted overhead), you pick up your own tray when announced, and you bus your own table when finished. Serve-yourself rice is available in the fluorescent-lit dining area. A granny with a straw hat and dark glasses sometimes acts as a kind of traffic cop, but there is otherwise not a server in sight.
None of this impacts the food. My first foray into DIY dining was with the No. 7 Spicy Seafood Noodle bowl, and no corners were cut in the quality and quantity of the shrimp, mussels, squid and clams. Some springy noodles, a few slices of fish cake, and various veg filled out the soupy bowl, and if the “spicy” part was also sorta self-serve (add your own heat from a lidded container of chili sauce or the squeeze bottle of what appears to be a diluted, sweet-hot gochujang), this is hardly a defect. No matter how much or little heat you add, it all tastes better at the bottom of the bowl.
A couple of banchan saucers accompany the soup. More are served, it seems, with drier dishes. The usual kimchi and beansprouts appeared on a second visit, slices of a delicate omelet provided an appealing contrast, and chunks of potato in a robust gravy and bits of broccoli in what may (or may not) have been a kewpie mayo were refreshingly different from the usual array. (Kimchi and a staggering selection of condiments represent only the tip of the available iceberg in the store itself.) All of this nicely set up a seafood pancake with shredded potato that emerged crisp and crunchy on the exterior, creamy, studded with shrimp and squid and threaded with scallion on the interior.
The white board menu to the right of the printed one at least gives the impression of occasional change. Many of its offerings will be unfamiliar to all but the experienced Korean diner — although cold noodles with raw fish are a standard, as is stir-fried jap chae with noodles and beef. The pleasant woman who takes your order at the kitchen window is easy to talk to, however, so just ask if you want the skinny on seasoned raw crabs.
In ordering a dish that’s only quasi-familiar, the heated stone-pot version of bibimbap called dolsot bibimbap (No. 39), our order-taker offered that it came with runny egg and ground beef. The crowning egg was obvious upon delivery; the ground beef took a little determined excavating to detect. The trick here is to take a couple of spoons and turn the contents over to reveal the crunchy rice bits at the bowl’s bottom — preferably before the egg cooks any further. This is a composite creation, containing everything from sliced zucchini to preserved burdock root, scallion and carrot. Yet the thrill here is in the textures. A little squeeze of hot sauce is thus not a mistake.
Nothing needs to be added to the kimchi pork stir fry unless it’s a little restraint in the speed of consumption. The boneless pork ribs, preserved cabbage and scallion are a match made in heaven. A sprinkle of sesame seeds is the sole garnish. This dish is so flavor-packed that it’s even good cold the next day, just FYI.
Korean Restaurant at Korean Market
6210 Fairdale Drive, (210) 831-6636
10am-7:30pm Mon-Sat, 1-6:30pm Sun
Korean Restaurant (there’s no visible name except on the credit card slip) is tucked away behind the kitchenwares at Korean Market. You order at the kitchen window, pick up your own order, and bus you own table. Dishes range from the well-known kimchi pancake and bibimbap to raw crab and ginseng chicken soup.
kimchi pork stir fry, spicy seafood noodle bowl, all the banchan.
So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.