Best Cheap Lunches of the Metro, Part 1

When I first thought about going to Korea Restaurant on the U of M’s East Bank campus I thought of titling my blog post, “My all-time most favoritest ever cheap lunch in Minnesota.”

Then all my other favorite cheap lunches sprang to mind. (Like? Cheesesteak at Golooneys, everything at Jasmine Deli or Saigon, roast beef sandwiches at Maverick’s, Eggplant parmigiano at Brianno’s in Eagan….I could do this all day.) I became lost in a philosophical merry-go-round of my mind’s wonderment. I mean, are great lunches like beautiful sunny days? Is it inherent that you love the one you’re with, and immediately hope for another? Or are great cheap lunches more like track-and-field records, with identifiable, quantifiable stand-outs, such that you could say, “Lunch, June 6, 1980: best ever!’?

I stopped wondering once I actually got to Korea Restaurant, because it was time to eat. I’m just saying, though: Whether this place is a beautiful sunny day or a track and field record, it’s a great, blessed, wonderful, memorable, worthy thing—in the under $10 lunch category, that is.

Let me tell you, it ain’t the décor that does it: stained, elderly carpets, a dismal drop ceiling, furniture and lighting reminiscent of a cut-rate auto body-shop waiting room. Bring a magazine.

The way the place works at lunch is that you go to the little cash register by the kitchen and order from the dozen lunch specials. They’re all $6.99, except for the kal bi—beef short ribs—which are $7.99. You can also order from the regular menu if you want, which you have to do if you want their signature mandoo dumplings ($5.95).

You pay your money, you get a little number. You put your number on your table, and proceed to the banchan bar. Banchan are the little side-dishes like kim chi, pickled bean sprouts, and potato salad that distinguish Korean cuisine from other Asian cuisines; they’re used to season rice, and Korea Restaurant sets out about half a dozen per lunch. There’s also white rice (it’s traditional to use the metal bowls for this) and a soup. So, you fill your little dishes with whatever looks interesting, and head back to your table. By the time you’ve assembled your gargantuan array of food, someone will have brought you your entrée. Now you sit down and feast.

Today I had the kal-bi, because Korea Restaurant makes a standout version of the thin-sliced beef short ribs. First they marinate them in a sweet-spicy soy mixture made herbal with plenty of fresh green scallions, and then they grill them at about a billion degrees till the ribs are crisp like potato chips, tender like tenderloin, and fatty like ribs, all in alternating bites. I also got the mandoo because that’s how I roll. These pierogie-like stuffed dumplings were elegantly done, the noodle wrapper tender on the inside, crisp on the outside, the filling, made with cellophane noodles, pork, and scallions, homey and comforting. Paired with the banchan buffet it was a meal fit for a king—a really hungry king. I ate seaweed and daikon salad; sweet soy boiled potatoes; traditional firey pickled cabbage kim-chi; marinated bean sprouts; chili dressed parsnips; green romaine salad with carrots and a chili dressing, and a pork and seaweed soup. For $8! Well, $13, actually, but that’s just because I’m nuts (about Korean mandoo dumplings, but, you know, also generally). The $8 part of it would have done me fine.

The two college kids at the next table looked at my spread with envy — odd, because they had access to pretty much everything I did, though they had gotten one of the bul go gi (thin sliced meat in a spicy sauce—I personally prefer the pork over the beef, it’s more tender), both cost $6.99. “That’s the kal bi, it’s an extra dollar, but it’s worth it,” noted one of the kids to the other. Who says kids today don’t know the value of a dollar?

Of course, since today was one of my first efforts in blogging, the camera I was toting ran out of batteries after about three pictures. But I think I got one of the sign out front—and yeah, I know the sign says Korea Café, and the restaurant is called Korea Restaurant, but I don’t really feel like doing anything about it. It just deepens the culinary wonderment that is this East Bank hole in the wall. It’s a typo, wrapped in a land-speed record, wrapped in a beautiful sunny day, wrapped in one damn good lunch.

Korea Restaurant
211 Oak St. S.E., Minneapolis
Mon — Sat 11 a.m. — 9 p.m.; lunch specials Mon — Fri 11 a.m. — 3 p.m.; closed Sundays