When I moved to Lexington many years ago, I had to keep reminding myself that it's a college town. There just didn't seem to be the kind of retail and restaurant cluster that I had always associated with the surrounds of major schools.
This has changed somewhat, but I was reminded of that observation as I ate lunch at a crowded Han Woo Ri recently.
Dining at the Korean restaurant on South Limestone, off the University of Kentucky's campus, felt, looked and tasted like an eating experience near a major university. The place was packed, the clientele was diverse, the servers were young, the décor was anything but pretentious — and the food was good and inexpensive.
A friend who spent her high school years in Korea joined me to sample Han Woo Ri's fare. We focused on traditional Korean dishes and, with only one exception, were not disappointed.
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In a first round, the dishes were jap chae, glistening sweet potato noodles with mushrooms, vegetables and a little bit of beef (also available without beef as a vegetarian offering), and dol sol bi bim bab, a mixture of rice, bits of meat, vegetables and egg with hot sauce. Served in a hot stone pot, the rice forms delicious crusts around the edges, adding unique texture and taste to the dish.
The two were a great contrast. The slightly sweet, milder jap chae offset the fire of the bi bim bab. For texture, they presented counterpoints, with the silky noodles complementing the crunchy rice.
In all food, balance is the key, and these dishes accomplish that. An undercooked vegetable would jar; too much meat, and the dishes could seem heavy and greasy; too much spice, and you wouldn't taste anything else; too little, and you'd lose interest. But Han Woo Ri's kitchen manages the balance to good effect.
On another outing, we tried the beef bulgogi, the Korean approach to barbecue in which thin strips of meat, marinated in soy sauce, are cooked quickly; pa jun, a seafood pancake (also available as a vegetarian option); and steamed pork dumplings.
The only disappointment was the pa jun, which seemed a little bland, starchy and slightly greasy.
I was assured the bulgogi took my friend back to her days in Korea, and it is a great dish, served with shredded potatoes and rice. The meat is cooked through but not tough, salty, a little sweet and topped with peppers that add a high, spicy note.
The dumplings were a bit less exciting but perfectly OK. If I had to guess, I would venture that they are made in bulk elsewhere and cooked in the Han Woo Ri kitchen, lacking the personal touch that distinguishes the other dishes.
Many of the dishes include small servings of kim chee, the pickled, hot vegetable mixture unique to Korean food. Han Woo Ri's rendition is very good, spicy but not overpowering.
During one of my visits I also ordered seaweed salad, which was excellent and even maintained its taste and texture after the leftovers were stored a few days in my refrigerator. A mixture of seaweed, thinly sliced cucumbers, sesame seeds and spices, it was crisp, slightly fishy (in a good way) and just a wonderful counterpoint to the other dishes.
We also tried the cinnamon tea, a comfort on these cold days. We thought we tasted cardamom in there, too. It was a delightful, slightly sweet but not distractingly so, drink with our meal.
The serving sizes were abundant but not overwhelming, and it is very easy for two people to eat well for $25.