For all the restaurant diversity in the parts of the city easily accessible by SEPTA, there’s a number of national culinary traditions maintaining their center of gravity elsewhere. When it comes to the hearty foods of Korea, Olney has long been where it’s at: For a generous tableful of banchan and menus as authentic as they are deep, head north until you smell the kimchi.
Among these totemic northern Korean destinations, Seorabol has a reputation that places it a cabbage petal above many of its competitors. Ask a serious food-lover where to chow down on chajang or browse the infinite food websites—this large, casual spot a 15-minute drive north of Old City keeps popping up. Unfortunately, much as I enjoyed certain dishes, I wasn’t blown away by the food in general. This came as a surprise; I typically love the lusty flavors of this cuisine that places a premium on the hearty and the tongue-tingling.
Banchan, as always, started things off on an appropriately welcoming note, but they were unexpectedly uneven in execution. Kimchi was a highlight, a wonderfully light preparation with a zip of freshness to the otherwise deeper, spicier flavors of the fermented cabbage. Parsley salad, salty and bright, showed the herb far more respect than it typically gets, and proved that it’s capable of being so much more than a garnish. O-deng (fish cakes) were sliced thin with the texture of a particularly dense matzoh ball and a fabulous nutty flavor you’d never expect. Cucumbers carried a very appealing back-of-the-throat burn, an excellent counterpart to the inherent freshness. Korean water cabbage, despite the delicacy of the greens and whites, exploded with a front-of-tongue spice heat and a bright bite that was the Korean equivalent of bar snacks: One chopstickful inexorably led to another, until the bowl was empty. But other banchan fell flat: Pleasantly gelatinous cubes of bean jelly were little more than vessels for the (excellent) kochujang chili-pepper paste; cellophane-clear vermicelli noodles were inexplicably bland; seasoned sprouts were overwhelmed by their salinity.
As far as the real meat of the menu—well, lean toward the meat. Marinated bulgogi grilled on the table’s cooking surface was sweet, bright, tender and impossibly moist. (Barbecue dishes incidentally have a two-order minimum, which can crank up the bill.) Ethereal curls of beef in an otherwise unremarkable bibimbap raised the preparation higher than its waterlogged vegetables could have accomplished on their own.
Kimchi jigae took full advantage of Seorabol’s high level of skill with this most emblematic cabbage. Despite kimchi’s reputation for unrelenting spiciness, the cabbage in this stew, like the kimchi banchan, managed a cooling sensation that played well off the gentle burn of the broth that permeated the accompanying tofu and pork.
Spicy clam and vegetable soup (jogae tang) was remarkable, a deep, earthy liquid that highlighted the meatiness of the clams, as opposed to its more common sweet focus. Just make sure to tuck into the clams as soon as they arrive, as they tend to overcook if they sit in the broth too long.
Then there were dishes that just failed to excite, which perhaps is inevitable with a menu this extensive. When I asked about the noodles in black bean sauce (chajang myun) and was told that they might be a bit too stinky for me (the waitress’ word, not mine), I immediately ordered them, as the most interesting dishes are often the ones that come with disclaimers. When the glistening, inky noodles arrived, my spirits brightened even further. Unfortunately, that visual led to nothing more than a pleasant but wholly pedestrian experience, neither stinky nor particularly flavorful. Stir-fried octopus (nakji bokum) had the opposite problem—its flavors were spectacular, a fireworks display of chili-paste spice, sweet sliced onions and thin noodles that had absorbed all the juicy goodness. The octopus itself, though, had been so overcooked, chewing was a chore.
So while there are definite flashes of deliciousness here, there are also some more problematic dishes that peddle far too comfortably in the bland. Best to visit with a large group (the portions are huge and the prices add up quickly) and focus on the meats and stews. You’ll likely leave wearing a smoky meat perfume—not the average fragrance of choice, but a nice memory of the best parts of eating here.
5734 N. Old Second St.
Cuisine: Korean, with sushi and maki options.
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 11am-11pm; Sun., 11am-10pm.
Atmosphere: Casual, permeated by the aroma of grilling meat—in other words, very comfortable.
Service: Willing to guide you, though there may be a bit of a language barrier depending on who’s helping your table.
Food: Generally solid, with both highlights and a handful of dishes that fell surprisingly flat.