Kalbee — Pembroke, VA
Tucked in a fairly empty, rural part of southwest Virginia is the Kalbee Korean restaurant in Pembroke. Housed in a brick one-storey building and decorated with a weird Italian-Korean-kitschy fusion of trout memorabilia, cute kitten figurines, and jars of pickling garlic, the restaurant stands out from the ordinary, if only because it’s (in my mind) in the middle of nowhere (Pembroke is population ~,1169) and it’s Korean.
Sometime last year I heard rumor about Kalbee–that a Korean restaurant was somewhere in a town in Giles county where you’d least expect it, that it might be good but no one had actually eaten there. Then, back in February when G & I hiked the slightly frozen Cascades trail, we drove past it. It wasn’t open on a Sunday. So when a spare Saturday popped up, we jumped at the chance to not only hike, but also to try out the restaurant, see how it compared to Wonju, the Korean restaurant here in Roanoke (that I haven’t blogged about, even though I’ve been meaning to for ages).
When we arrived at the restaurant, only one other table was occupied and a middle aged white man busied himself at the register while an African American 20-something seated us. Not that race indicates the quality of food, but we were a bit miffed. The location, the people there, the Italian figurines and circa 1905 cash register–it all didn’t add up to my preconceived notion of “Korean.” The cook–and the only cook in the restaurant, as we learned at some point during the meal when our server was chatting with old friends from Virginia Tech–was the wife of the middle aged man (and she’s Korean). So that part made a little more sense, at least. It also explained a bit of the decoration–country kitsch meets Asian kitsch.
After we ordered, we were presented with several dishes including kimchi, pickled turnip, daikon, and fermented black beans. These were fairly standard compared to others I’ve had, though I have to admit that I know next to nothing about kimchi & this style of fermentation, so I can’t really comment. I’m always a fan of fermented black beans though, so I couldn’t complain.
Next, we split a bowl of the Korean Chicken & Dumplings (note: I didn’t save a menu & didn’t have anything to write on, so I’m going by memory for the names of dishes). When we ordered the dish, I pictured chicken in a broth with some veggies laced with the rice cakes & dumplings. And that’s what we were given. But I also expected some pepper paste to tinge the broth, to give it a little spicy depth and Koreanness to the fusion dish. Instead, it was a rather bland broth with chicken and rice cakes and two dumplings. And given the fact that the bowl was quite giant, two dumplings was two to four too few.
Thankfully, after eating some of it, I was able to flag down our server and ask if they had any pepper paste. After a little wait, she came out with the best part of the meal–a tiny bowl of homemade pepper paste. I quickly dumped half in the broth, stirred, and, voila, a slightly spicy, warm, and inviting bowl of soup. Even on its own, the pepper paste had a great depth of flavors–the cook really knows what she’s doing with that, so I can only guess that the flavor of the soup was dumbed down for the location. Or that the chef hadn’t thought of adding some more oomph to it. In many ways, I really wish I did know because the soup was excellent with the pepper paste addition. The rice cakes gave a nice chew that traditional noodles don’t, and the dumplings were a nice surprise, even if there weren’t as many of them as I would have liked.
Next, we split the beef bibimbap. When asked if we wanted the egg raw or cooked, I said raw, since the egg normally cooks in the blazing hot dolsot (also note: I think the bibimbap claimed that it was dolsot bibimbap, but I can’t confirm since the restaurant does not have their menu online). When the dish came out, however, it was not in a dolsot (the hot stone bowl), but instead in a very cold bowl filled with lukewarm food. Needless to say, the raw egg did not cook, it was just swirled around so that it coated everything. Flavor wise, the dish was bland and rather soy saucy. While the vegetables and beef were ok, neither of us were impressed with the dish and really wished that it had been cooked in a dolsot, at least to give it that extra little crunch of crackly cooked rice.
Maybe we had a bad day at Kalbee, but maybe that’s how the food always is–a good reviewer would go back and give it another whirl. But I’m not a good reviewer and I’m not excited about returning any time soon (and I know G isn’t really up for it). The meal wasn’t the worst we’ve eaten, but it wasn’t anywhere close to the best or even average. Surprisingly, the dining room was almost full when we left–and it was full of a mix of families as well younger 20-somethings. Apparently Pembroke really supports the restaurant, which I think is great considering there aren’t many options besides it and Subway.
And this all gets me to thinking about the idea of authenticity–thanks, in part, to an article in the innagural issue of Lucky Peach. Is Kalbee authentic? I don’t know. It’s maybe authentic to southwest Virginia–a blend of the mountain flavors and Korean ones–but what I do know is that I don’t think the chef is pushing herself enough. The pepper paste–homemade–was intensely flavorful and complex. A touch of that complexity, that depth, to all of the dishes would have made Kalbee stand out in my mind. In a rural corner, the restaurant has the opportunity to really push borders–the borders of the norm, the borders of the expected, and I would love to see it rise to the challenge one day soon.
609 Snidow Street
Pembroke, VA 24136-3489