If you’ve ever driven through south Asheville, you may have noticed a few Korean churches — an indication of a population that has always been strong in the suburbs to the south and continues to grow. So it’s not surprising to see Korean restaurants pop up all over town. The most recent addition to that scene is Koreana, a new venture from Rita Chen, co-owner of the Stone Bowl on Hendersonville Road.
Chen, who is originally from China, found herself working in Korean restaurants upon coming to America. “I worked in Korean restaurants for years” she explains, “and I really liked the food. So I just kept doing it.” She and her head chef, “Mr. Woo,” who has more than 30 years of experience working in Korean kitchens in New York, roll out fresh and very traditional food.
A meal at Koreana begins with, as anyone familiar with Korean cuisine expects, banchan, an onslaught of tiny and delicious appetizer-like side dishes including kimchi, pickled and fermented vegetables of every variety, and small soups known as guk. During the day, lunch boxes are served with even more sides. Bulgogi (Korean barbecue) beef, pork or chicken are accompanied by rice, crispy pan-fried dumplings, kimbab (a Korean style of sushi) and, of course, a dollop of that delicious and ubiquitous spicy, fermented cabbage, kimchi.
Diners who are used to the menu at Stone Bowl will be familiar with many of the offerings at Koreana. “The options will be similar because all Korean restaurants offer these same items,” says Chen. “But you will notice the difference with ours because our chef does things differently. The flavors will be different because these are his recipes.”
Unlike many Asian cuisines found in American cities, Korean food has remained staunchly independent and traditional. Where many American Chinese and Japanese restaurants acquiesced to the palates of less-seasoned and less well-traveled American eaters — often making entirely new dishes bearing little resemblance to the traditional fare — Korean food remains, for the most part, unchanged. It’s a rare chance to taste a genuine flavor from another culture.
Despite most of the ingredients being pickled or fermented, there is a familiar spice and flavor that feels natural for many of us who have grown used to Americanized versions of sushi and other Japanese-style dishes. The spices and general umami are clean and elegant while still feeling complex. It’s at once as fresh and foreign as it is rustic and comforting.
“I think everything in Korean food tastes so fresh,” says Chen. “That’s why it doesn’t have to change much for people here to like it.”
Koreana is at 221 Airport Road, Arden. koreanaasheville.com
— Jonathan Ammons is an Asheville writer.