WAHIAWA — The oldest kal bi restaurant in Hawaii had been there forever, in my sights, but unvisited by this Pupule. Until now.
The trip to Waialua for the football photo shoot was informative, productive and ... unfulfilling. See, I was hungry, and the only place I know of in Waialua that has food worth stopping for is a little bento joint that closes at 1 p.m.
That was way too early. On the way back to town, I decided to make a pilgrimage to Seoul Inn, which is known as the oldest kal bi restaurant in Hawaii. Never been there, but what kal bi fan can resist such a claim?
The place is slightly off the beaten path, but convenient nonetheless. I'd seen it many a time while driving to games at Leilehua High School and always wondered. Is it that good? And why is the restaurant still in an old building surrounded by dingy stores? It didn't make sense, but it also meant that the potential for great food was high. It's often the case with old restaurants in small towns.
So I parked (not a lot of spaces, but very accessible) and made my way in. Thought I'd make it take out, but after ordering, the place just grew on me. I'm glad I stayed. As I downloaded my Waialua football photos, I started to wonder about Wahiawa in general, with all its fast-food joints outnumbering the local establishments. There's no way I'd go for Taco Bell or Wendy's (two of my fast-food favorites) over Sunnyside Drive In. But Seoul Inn?
The food only took 10 minutes to arrive. The kal bi was the star. The superstar. Tasty. Sweet, maybe too sweet for some kal bi-holics, but fine for me. It came with the bone, authentic Korean style. I can do just fine with or without that bone. The veggies were terrific. The soy bean sprouts surprised me. I didn't know what it was, but they tasted like they'd been fermenting in garlic for weeks. So good. So so good. The waitress was kind enough to bring me seconds.
I made sure to make the rounds on the veggies with each bite of kal bi. The regular kim chi was surprisingly unspicy. There are arguments to be made about what authentic kim chi should taste like. Local style is very low in red peppers and tastes more like Japanese tsukemono (pickled veggies) than anything. Of course, check history and Korea didn't have red peppers until the Portuguese voyagers brought them to shore. So, people who claim that true Korean kim chi is not super spicy — not like the fiery red jars I used to buy at Dae Han Store (now gone) — may have a strong argument.
In any event, the veggies rocked. The rice did not. The rice was almost cold, a bit too chewy and definitely on the verge of crunchiness. Not good qualities for good rice, but it was 5 p.m. and I may have caught the cook at an "in-between" time for their regular crowds.
I finished off my meal by sucking on the kal bi bone without a shred of manners. I also mashed my leftover rice on the kal bi plate to absorb the last of that carmelized, kal bi goodness. That's how good it was. And is.
For 7 bucks, you won't get a better, home-style Korean meal. The service was friendly and quick. I strongly recommend Seoul Inn if you love Korean food, are on a budget, and appreciate value. If you need fancy chandeliers and waiters in suits to enjoy a meal, go elsewhere.
Seoul Inn rating on the Pupule-o-meter: 3 stars (out of 4).
410 California Ave
Wahiawa, HI 96786-1947