▲ Red Balloon offers no-frills dining with a tasty punch. Photo by Danielle Ching
Korean food can be overwhelming with its myriad of choices, textures, flavours and sensations. Koreans love their meat, and pork is no exception. Gamjatang is not the latest in illicit drug fare; rather it is a Korean comfort food consisting of pork bone simmered in a thick spicy broth. Before one dismisses it for lack of glamour, one should realize that gamjatang is an incredibly delicious and warming meal.
With this knowledge in mind, I went to try a Korean restaurant named Red Balloon. It is tucked away at the end of a dark alley in City Hall, just past the batting cages. Aesthetic was most definitely not the primary concern of the restaurant owner; there was no sensory appeal in the shoddy house-turned-restaurant. The restaurant showed no pride in its appearance. The shabby iron gate, old shingled doorway, and musty interior required that the food seriously upstage the restaurant's appearance in order to reverse any unsavoury first impressions.
Inside the restaurant were several tables in both a main and private room equipped with individual gas burners. Dining at the restaurant was reminiscent of going to grandma’s — if grandma had a penchant for garish fluorescent lighting, dim rooms and bare bones furniture. Customers were expected to seat themselves.
The waiter seemed quite content to mope in and out of the kitchen but not to offer help. Once an order of gamjatang was placed; this lone waiter arrived nonchalantly with a large pot of pork bones in a simmering meat and potato broth. Despite his unwillingness to help out his befuddled customers tinkering over an annoying gas knob, the food was surprisingly rich and pleasant.
Side dishes included the standard kimchi; a sweet, pickled floral herb with hints of star anise; spinach sprinkled with garlic; and a gooey, shredded, red pepper squid. If one is very hungry, it may be extremely tantalizing to dip right into the soup base peppered with spice flakes and potato-y goodness, but it would be wise to wait for the pork bones to boil for some time to let the meat soak up additional flavour. Watching one’s dinner bubbling to perfection is certainly a thing of beauty.
The pork bones themselves are not dressed up in any way; they are ugly, spiny chunks cut straight from the source. The spine bones crammed together in a pot with cut potato looked like a peasant’s dinner, reflecting again the restaurant’s weakness for function over form.
But one should not be fooled by its medieval appearance. When the meat on the bones is cooked, it becomes a tender and satisfying morsel of deliciousness since it retains all the flavours of the soup in the time it cooks at the table. Some patrons choose to bring bread or some other carbohydrate companion to sop up the savoury broth. Others enjoy the pork meat mashed together with rice and potatoes.
No doubt about it, the food is warming and wholly gratifying, enough to excuse the restaurant’s lack of beauty in build or facade.
The bill for four, including a double gamjatang order and drinks, came out to 39,000 won, or 15,000 won per pot. Drinks range from 3,000-6,000 won. Needless to say, dining at the Red Balloon was a reminder to never judge a book by its cover. Like a diamond in a very rough rough, Red Balloon offers a satisfying meal for those who can excuse its beast of an exterior and appreciate the beauty of its bone-warming gamjatang.
Red Ballon Ido 2-dong, Jeju City Telephone: 064-753-2824
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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