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Review: Hometown Korean is a great primer on Korean cuisine

The L-shaped strip mall on the corner of Minnesota Drive and Benson Boulevard is rife with ethnic food possibilities. Filipino cuisine, sushi, Greek food and baked goods, Vietnamese and Korean are mere steps from one another, a veritable global cafeteria. Hometown Korean is tucked in the middle, an unassuming space with eight tables and a pristine fish tank. Color photographs of the food with Korean labels decorate the walls.

A server promptly greeted me with a cup of complimentary green tea, which was perfect for the cold I was intending to eradicate via my own prescription of super spicy food. The menu promised many spicy things, from a spicy rice cake ($14) to bulgogi ($18) to an entire fish menu with a little jalapeno by every dish. Yes! Just what the doctor ordered.

But first, I started with an order of benign steamed dumplings ($12) so as not to risk an overdose. The dumplings themselves were silken purses of mildly peppery pork and minced vegetables. The accompanying sauce was the sneaky spice; scallion, sesame, chili and soy commingled for a piquant punch. Twelve fat dumplings were a generous portion and I saved six to put in a soup for later.

I ordered the bibimbap in a stone bowl ($16) for my entree and got ready to revel in banchan bacchanalia. Banchan, for Korean food neophytes, refers to the plentiful assortment of side dishes that accompany Korean meals. The number and types vary from restaurant to restaurant but more is more in my opinion. Eight little dishes came out and I was ambivalent; it's not a paltry amount but neither was it the pickled plethora I hoped for.

The cold kimchi soup was an intriguing mix of clean flavors and crisp carrot, cabbage and daikon. The house kimchi wasn't funky enough for me. It lacked pizzazz and flair, sparkle and verve. Good kimchi should be a savory bomb of flavor. Here, the jalapeno-pickled onion filled that role. It was fierce, burning, fermented punishment. My sinuses thanked me with a vengeance.

The seaweed salad was sweet and briny at the same time, the broccoli cold and crisp with just a hint of sesame oil. The beans were non-offensive and forgettable, the Oxford comma of the banchan.

The clear winner of the meal was my hot stone bowl of bibimbap. The sound of the rice sizzling and the pore-opening steam that arose were good indicators that this was done right. And it was. The crackle and pop of the rice, just-wilted spinach, bits of yolky egg, paper-thin slices of mushroom and snappy bean sprouts required a little drizzle of soy sauce and a graffiti of gochujang (hot pepper paste) to tie the whole thing together. Rarely does texture come before taste for me but I found myself excavating my bowl for those caramelized, golden burnt bits of rice.

The little pieces of pork in the bowl enhanced the meal but seemed almost like an afterthought; the meat wasn't seasoned assertively enough to stand out. I love the Korean method of marinating meat with both sweet and salty elements and the added bite and dimension of garlic and onions. In this preparation, the pork was a little lacking but the rest of the dish was so good that the overall flavor wasn't affected.

When I returned for my second visit, I chose the kalbi ribs ($23), one of my all-time favorite Korean meals. The thin cut of the ribs ensures maximum marinade penetration and this version was tender, just salty enough and redolent of barbecue smoke and wood fire.

Hometown Korean is a great place for diners who are curious about Korean food. Purists can still find satisfaction in the solid execution of dishes but some of the complexity and authenticity is missing -- or rather, the face-melting heat and funk that I look for in Korean food is toned down. Consider Hometown an introductory course in international cuisine.

Hometown Korean

Hours: 12 p.m.-12 a.m. Monday, 5 p.m.-12 a.m. Tuesday, 12 p.m.-12 a.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 12 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 1 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday

Options: Dine-in and takeout

Phone: 277-2211

Location: 3020 Minnesota Drive

$$

3 and a half stars

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