Review: Expanded Asian cafe and market a feast for the Seoul –

Seoul Asian Market & Cafe is no newcomer to the San Antonio food scene. As a grocery store, the business has fed the city’s Korean community since the 1980s and called several addresses home in that time. Several years ago, a small restaurant was added, occupying a cramped back corner walled in by shelving loaded with snack food, rice cookers, household cleaners and more.

Fortunately the store has lot more elbow room these days. Alice Cheng, who’s family launched the business, announced plans earlier this year to take over a pair of larger units in the Sam Houston Center shopping plaza at Rittiman and Harry Wurzbach roads, where the business has been located for decades.

The Chengs completed the move several weeks ago. Among the perks of the new digs: a dedicated kitchen and dining room with more tables and far less squeeze from the retail side’s encroaching merchandise.

If your idea of Korean food is limited to grilling strips of pork belly on a tabletop burner, get ready for a lesson. Seoul Asian Market & Cafe dishes up about 50 soups, stews, noodle plates and more that deliver a complex range of sinus-clearing chile scorch, fermented funk and rib-sticking wholesomeness. It’s the soul food you didn’t realize you’d crave.

On the menu: There are obvious advantages to running a restaurant literally housed inside a grocery store. As such, you’re unlikely to find a fresher or wider array of ingredients anywhere in town.

Sure, there are familiar fried dumplings, but the Korean kimchi pancake ($8) is a more interesting place to start. It’s a medley of chopped kimchi, green onions and other vegetables bound with just enough flour to hold the whole affair together. Grab a slice (it’s huge and cut into eighths like a pizza) and dunk it in a salty-hot mixture of soy sauce, chili and sesame seeds. You could finish the whole thing and call it a night — an entirely respectable option — but that wouldn’t leave much room for the squid.

And there must be squid. Spicy Pan-broiled Squid ($10), to be exact. A tasty tangle of tentacles and vegetables and doused in a spicy and sweet sauce and addictive in all the right ways.

It’s not all fire and spice, of course. For flavors a bit more restrained, consider the Black Bean Noodles ($6), a bowl of earthy fermented soybean broth hiding a mound of bouncy noodles, chopped meat and vegetables. Savory and satisfying without a bit of spice, it’s one of the more subtle orders on the menu.

Vegetable beef soup ($6) will likely be a harder sell for the palate of most Texans, a murky broth with leafy greens cooked to near mush.

Broiled pork bulgogi ($11.99) hits salty and sweet notes custom designed for rice and a few slices of spicy pickle.

Most orders are served with rice and a half-dozen or so little side dishes called banchan. The exact contents can vary from visit to visit, but expect things along the lines of napa cabbage kimchi, pickled daikon radish, sprouted soy beans, cucumbers or other vegetables in a spicy sauce, chile-pickled eggplant and more.

I’ve always preferred ugly and oily fish to tuna and grouper, so the whole fried mackerel ($12.99) was an easy choice. An entire fish, expertly butterflied from head to tail — gaping maw and needlelike teeth still intact — hit the table sizzling hot and completely unadorned. But eaten with a pinch of rice and few shreds of kimchi, it was one of the more enjoyable seafood dishes I’ve had in months.

Location: 1105 Rittiman Road, 210-822-1529, Facebook: Seoul Asian Market & Cafe.

Hours: The store is open 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 12:30-8 p.m. Sundays. The kitchen is open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 4-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

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