You can count the Korean-cuisine restaurants in the area pretty much on one hand, with most of them, it seems, in Overland Park.
After it opened in 2009, Korean Restaurant Sobahn soon earned a reputation as a reliable purveyor of authentic, tongue-awakening tastes from the Asian peninsula.
Situated, coincidentally or not, in a commercial strip on Shawnee Mission Parkway between a Korean laundry and a Kia auto dealership, Sobahn deserves its enthusiastic buzz.
From a light beef-with-noodle dumpling all the way to a simple, sesame-seeded “doughnut” for dessert, a recent family-style feast for seven unfolded with nary a hitch and lots of good cheer. Our food-festive fun surely was aided by the carafe ofsoju
, an easy to sip rice-based vodkalike liquid, with which we toasted our good luck and friendship on Thanksgiving eve.
“Sobahn” refers to a traditional low table meant for casual dining and fellowship. And Korean cuisine honors mostly simple ingredients and preparations. Peppers in various forms cling ubiquitously. Vinegared or fermented vegetables, such as the classic kimchi (made with Napa cabbage), are typical fare, as are soups, stews, rice and grilled and marinated meats and fish.
Chef Susana Kwon’s kitchen seems to turn out all of it with care. Kwon’s husband and co-founder, Paul, died unexpectedly a year ago, and she now runs Sobahn with two daughters, Sharon and Susan.
“We’re a small family-run business,” Sharon Kwon told me over the phone last week. “We put a lot of heart and soul into our food and just our business in general.”
The two vegetarians at our table were well taken care of. One of our starters was a veggie version of the Korean pancake, a large, thin and soft rice-flour disc that looks a bit like pizza but tastes like nothing else. Pancakes might also have kimchi or meat in the mix, and those I’ve tasted at Sobahn have been addictive.
A pan-fried tofu (dubu
) steak was firm and mildly spicy and could earn the respect of the most doubting meat eater.
Soups range from delicate to hearty. A seaweed soup with oysters had a light broth and well-seasoned flavor along with its streams of greens and plump oysters. On another visit, a quiet afternoon when I dined solo for lunch, I made a filling meal out of the pork and potato soup, adding rice from time to time for starchy texture.
Between appetizers and our main dishes at our recent feast, servers brought small plates ofbanchan
— the traditional assortment of sides, including kimchis of cabbage, cucumber and radish (probably daikon).
As for entrees, a spicy marinated pork dish (jaeyuk bokkeum) featured small slices of tender, flavorful meat, layered with peppers and other vegetables. Thin slices of marinated beef ( bulgogi
), which you top with a dollop of tangy sauce (soybean paste with chili powder), wrap in a lettuce leaf and eat by hand, were similarly succulent and agreeable.
“The food seems really fresh,” my longtime table companion, She Who Is Not Easily Pleased, chimed in.
She was, however, less enamored than I was of the seafood stew for two (haemul jungol
), but I lean more to the fish side than she does. (My bad for forcing it on her.) The spicy broth was crowded with clams, mussels, shrimp and crab legs along with pieces of calamari and lateral slices of scallop.
It might’ve been nice to have had one of those little shellfish forks to pick away at the crab and avoid finger mess, but I was too busy eating to ask. The stew for two, not unlike a San Francisco-style cioppino, probably could satisfy three or four diners, especially if you’re sharing other dishes as we did.
No one really had room for dessert, and the offerings were slim, but our younger vegetarian friend opted for a serving of green tea ice cream, and when our server described the Korean doughnuts, I figured we ought to have a go.
Each plate comes with four light balls made of sweetened rice dough, which are filled with a mildly sweet red bean paste and covered in sesame seeds and little drips of a chocolate sauce.
One of our guests, a Laotian-born man — and a good cook — up from New Orleans for the holiday, mentioned that the heavy dose of sesame seeds was an expression of good fortune, a pan-Asian symbol especially at the New Year holidays.
Two hours into our meal, we certainly felt that vibe strongly and continue to hope the same for Sobahn.