In Berkeleyside Nosh’s regular “To Die For” column, Kate Williams looks at East Bay’s popular restaurants through the lens of a single, sought-after dish. Is the food is a bunch of hype, or is is in fact “to die for?”
Let’s get this out of the way first: Korean casseroles are nothing like American casseroles. The Korean dish, called junggol, is most similar to a Japanese hot pot. It consists of a rich broth filled with vegetables, kimchi, thick rice cakes, meat and seafood. Junggol is meant to be eaten family style, slowly, with small bowls of rice. Casserole House in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, serves several versions of junggol, the most adventurous of which contains beef intestines. But it is not the casseroles that earns the restaurant its most praise — or chagrin. Instead, it is talk of the banchan that dominates.
Any Korean restaurant worth their merit will bring out banchan, a series of small bites, to be eaten alongside the meal. Usually there will be a couple of versions of kimchi, steamed vegetables, a stir-fried dish or two, tofu, and, if you’re lucky, preserved fish of some kind. In the U.S. banchan is often presented as a free appetizer, but it can also be served at the same time as the main course and eaten as a collection of side dishes.
The word on the ‘nets was that Casserole House served not only one of the most abundant spreads of banchan, but also the best of its kind in the Korean strip running up and down Telegraph Avenue. In fact, most visitors claim the banchan to be the best part of the meal there, polishing off the many mini bowls even while leaving the casserole pot half full.
However, after a couple of visits, it seems that most of Casserole House’s banchan is not terribly distinctive. Steamed broccoli florets are fairly bland, as are the cold cubes of firm tofu. All three kimchis — napa cabbage, daikon, and carrot — are serviceable; but without the pungent bits of salted shrimp or bold heat that comes from a generous pour of chili, one is left with a pickle easily found on grocery store shelves.
Three dishes, however, are exceptionally good. A small scoop of cold black and yellow soybeans slick with a faintly sweet sauce is curiously addictive. Unidentified fried tubers, rich with oil and coated with a piquant chili paste, are creamy and lush in all the ways that the tofu isn’t. Best is the gratis pa jeon that appears first. Not often included in stateside banchan, the egg-laden scallion pancake is generous in size, perfectly crisp, and just greasy enough to satisfy without leaving trails of oil behind on the plate.
So, like many Korean restaurants in the area, the banchan at Casserole House is hit or miss. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other reasons to visit the restaurant. The casseroles make for a playful and warming meal on a crisp evening and offer the adventurous eater an opportunity to sample goat or intestines. The thick rice cake sticks hidden at the bottom of the bowl especially are treats over which to be fought.
Those not wanting to share should consider the haemul dolsot bibimbab (seafood rice bowl). One of three rice bowl options, the seafood is a generous combination of oysters, mussels, and clams interspersed with seaweed and lightly pickled vegetables. Casserole House heats their dolsot (stone) bowls properly, so the crackling rice stays hot and sizzling long after arriving at the table. Unlike at more timid restaurants, persistent heat of the bowl allows the rice enough time to transform into a deep brown cracker, yet another hidden another treat at the bottom of the bowl.
Finally, don’t dismiss the goon mahn du, huge oval dumplings filled with a blend of pork, beef, kimchi, and tofu. They arrive blistered and crisp on the outside, with a tender filling that more than makes up for lackluster bowls of cold kimchi sitting beside them on the table.
Restaurant: Casserole House Korean Cuisine (4301 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) (510) 601-6001.
Dish: Assorted banchan, some pedestrian mild, others generous and rich.
Cost: Free with meal. Cost for entrees ranges from $9.95 for rice or soup to $29.95 for a casserole (to share). Service is unpredictable.
Other dishes of note: Haemul Dol Sot Bibimbab (seafood rice bowl), Junggol (Korean casserole), Goon Mahn Du (meat, tofu, and kimchi dumplings).
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.
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