Bibimbap is the comfort food you never knew you were missing. It’s starchy, it’s ample, and it’s full of possibilities. It is, essentially, Korean cooks’ go-to way of doing lunch — a big bowl of steamed rice topped with beef and a color wheel of cooked and pickled vegetables that surround an egg sunny-side-up.
Everything about it sounds ordinary, like the dregs of the refrigerator piled in a bowl. But Korean cooks are really masters of variety and proponents of a thousand original bites. Take a typical meal at any Korean restaurant in town and you’ll see a cast of little side dishes, called banchan, accompany every entree, presenting you with numerous ways to make every spoonful of rice different from the last.
Banchan usually involves fermented vegetables, known as kimchi, and other highly seasoned vegetables called namul, which can include piles of glassy bean sprouts, sweet threads of daikon, spicy pickled cucumbers, and slices of marinated bean curd, potatoes, or fish cakes. These bits of confetti, along with koch’ujang, an essential red pepper sauce, are what make bibimbap a creative experience.
Good, fresh-tasting bibimbap can be had at one of Minneapolis’s newest Korean restaurants; Tofu House in Stadium Village has been open for about a year and a half, at the hands of a lovely husband-and-wife team. Students stream in and out and the kitchen sparkles. You can count on their bibimbap ($8) to come with enough fresh slivers of carrots, sweet beef, and the usual suspects of banchan to satisfy an afternoon craving. But a bibimbap at Tofu House (307 SE Oak St, Minneapolis, MN 55414; 612.331.1112) is really a bibimbap wasted, for the real magic occurs when this dish is served in a hot stone bowl.
According to Korean cookbook author Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall, this style of bibimbap originated in the city of Chonju. The stone bowl is called tolsot and is seasoned by boiling it in salted water and rubbing it down with oil. A tolsot lends its inhabitants the same flash of greatness that a cast iron pan can give to a blackened cheese sandwich.
When your sizzling stone bowl arrives, it’s a good idea to avoid hugging that hot bowl right to your chest, even though you’re glad to see it. Squirt a healthy zigzag of the sweet and spicy red pepper sauce across the top of the rice mountain, break the egg yolk, give the mess a stir, and then sit tight for few minutes so the rice along the bottom has time to develop a chewy, brown crust. Texture, texture, texture, and adjustable levels of spice, sweet, tang, and nuttiness are all at your fingertips. And while Tofu House does not offer bibimbap in this way, plenty of other restaurants do.
King’s Korean Restaurant in Fridley | “Dolsot Bibimbap” ($14)
Truly the freshest of the bunch, King’s version of stone bowl bibimbap is light and bright. Raw slices of carrot, greens, zucchini, and tiny bits of beef ring a single, raw egg yolk. Each grain of rice floats separate from its neighbor, but is generally bland and requires a good dance with the other elements to pick up other flavors. In King’s case, the red pepper sauce is crucial to the achieving savoriness throughout the dish. And at almost 14 bucks a bowl, King’s bibimbap has a couple of worthy contenders.
King’s Korean Restaurant, 1051 E Moore Lake Rd, Fridley, MN 55432; 763.571.7256
Korea Restaurant in Minneapolis | “Dol Sok Bibim Bop” ($10)
A good deal is Korea, the busy, no-frills joint that’s just down the street from Tofu House, and also triples as a salon and karaoke destination.
Korea’s bibimbap is tasty and classic, but perhaps lacks the precision of other versions, with less attention paid to the quality and appearance of the banchan. Shreds of dressed romaine lettuce with little crunch and a small bowl of tepid broth finish off the list of banchan without adding any extra zing. Nevertheless, Korea’s bibimbap is a hot, affordable option if you’re on the University campus and want to eat fast.
Korea Restaurant (no website), 221 Oak St SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414; 612.746.0559
Dong Yang Oriental Food in Columbia Heights | “Stone Bowl Rice” ($10)
Perhaps the quietest, most reliable deal is the stone bowl rice found tucked at the back of Dong Yang’s Asian market, where they also sell commercial and homemade incarnations of red pepper sauce. Dong Yang’s bibimbap includes the welcome addition of seaweed in the garnish, and a decent variety of banchan. Marinated bean curd, sweet and spicy cucumbers, eggplant, sweet strings of daikon, and a dish of classic kimchi round everything out. The rice itself is extremely moist, almost wet, which is simultaneously mushy and conducive to a super caramelized rice-y crust.
Dong Yang Oriental Food (no website), 735 45th Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55421; 763.571.2009
Mirror of Korea in St. Paul | “Dol Sot Bi Bim Bob” ($12)
Mirror of Korea’s mountainous rice bowl has a depth of flavor not quite matched by the others. It’s true that the vegetables don’t have the straight-from-the-crisper lightness of King’s version, but the sweet, juicy flavor of beef is more prominent and more generous, and the rice itself has a hearty, sticky quality and a faint perfume. Topped with the well-seasoned vegetables, the bowl begins with a bunch of flavor even before you add a drop of red pepper sauce.
The variety of side dishes is large, including cucumbers, daikon two ways, potatoes, bean sprouts, kimchi, bean curd, and fish cakes. Each of these bits has a specific character, from sweet and fresh to pungent and vinegary to funky and fatty. In fact, fat seems to play a more important role in Mirror’s stone bowl bibimbap, which makes everything taste better, after all.
Mirror of Korea, 761 Snelling Ave N, St. Paul, MN 55104; 651.647.9004