For many years, I worked in South Korea as a full-time English teacher and a part-time wanderer. Or was it the other way around? I wandered often—perhaps more than I taught.
Not being of Asian descent, I was noticeably different from the majority of Koreans. They would see me, meandering through neighborhoods like a lost cat, and approach me with a blend of caution and interest. After assessing that I was not deranged—like some lost cats—they would practice their English conversation skills with me. “What do you miss about your home country?” they would ask, inevitably.
“My family and friends,” I would say, because I wanted them to think I was a sociable person. “And the food,” I would add, because I wanted them to take me to dinner.
They played right into my hand.
Early on, I had craved the comfort foods of home: cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, pastrami sandwiches—I could go on. But after a few dinner invitations by kind-hearted Korean folks, I embraced Korean cuisine.
Korean cuisine mostly revolves around meat, vegetables, and rice, but it utilizes these elements in unique and adventurous ways. It can be, but isn’t always, spicy—frequently making use of garlic, onions, and red pepper paste.
Kimchi (spicy, fermented cabbage) is probably the most famous Korean food item. It is eaten on its own and added to any number of dishes, like fried rice (bokkeumbap) and stew (jjigae). If John Wayne is as American as apple pie, then Korea’s version of John Wayne (I don’t know who to cast in this role) is as Korean as kimchi. You can probably find it at your local supermarket.
Before I moved abroad, it wasn’t easy to find Korean restaurants here in Iowa. Now that I’m back, it still isn’t. But if you’re in Des Moines, Krunkwich Ramen House offers a well-chosen selection of Korean standards, such as bibimbap (mixed rice and vegetables) and japchae (stir-fried glass noodles with vegetables), as well as creative dishes inspired by Korean cooking. I haven’t sampled all of their Korean fare—yet—but I’ve been delighted with everything I’ve tried so far. And on Friday and Saturday nights, when Krunkwich closes and the space reopens as Los Banditos Hotdog Speakeasy, the Kimchi Dog is the obvious Korean-style choice. It’s messy, but it’s deliciously messy.
Also in Des Moines, Moar Tacos, Tacopocalypse, and Guru BBQ all feature Korean and/or Korean inspired items on their menus. The concoctions served at these restaurants do vary in taste and price, so if you don’t care for, say, the Korean tacos at one joint, there’s a chance you’ll love them at another. Your best bet is to visit them all.
I’m aware of only two other Korean restaurants in Iowa, both of which are in Iowa City: Seoul Grill, open during lunch hours, and the aptly named Korean BBQ. While I wish there were more Korean options in the area (and the state), I’m glad these two exist.
For anyone in Iowa who’s interested in discovering Korean cuisine, but finds flying to Seoul for a meal to be impractical, any of these restaurants are a great place to feed your curiosity.
If you know of a place to chow down on Korean food in Iowa, and I didn’t mention it, please let me know in the comments!