Written by Laura Baranik
It´s always a little disconcerting when you walk into a restaurant and its staff look surprised to see you.
‘Rugantino´s next door’, their concerned faces seem to be saying. ‘This is a Korean restaurant.’
‘Well, I´m obviously not Korean, but I happen to like Korean food’, I want to reply. ‘Is that okay?’
In truth, the only other customers I´ve seen at Koba have been Korean tour groups; otherwise, the place is usually completely deserted. But the fairly regular presence of a lot of native Koreans happily chomping on kimchi and bibimbap, as well as a whiteboard of daily specials written only in Hangul, the Korean alphabet, does a lot to recommend the place to a jaded Westerner such as myself. And once I tried the food, nothing short of a locked door and a serious health code violation could have kept me away.
For one thing, there´s the Galbi beef. Known in the West as Korean barbeque, Galbi is a dish made with beef or pork ribs that have been marinated in some variation of soy sauce, fruit juice, garlic, sesame oil, sugar, and other ingredients. The meat is cooked at the table, on a griddle or a grill. At Koba, the beef is pretty well cooked-through upon arrival, which some rare-meat hardcores might find a little upsetting. But even without any remaining hint of redness, the meat is as tender as pudding and just as sweet, with a heavy dose of garlic and soy providing just the right complexity of flavour.
No less saliva-inducing is the zazangmen (sometimes referred to as jajangmyeon or jajang), a dish of thick white flour noodles topped by a hearty stew of pork, potatoes, and veggies in a starchy black bean sauce. Zazangmen is considered to be something of a comfort food in Korea, and it´s not hard to see why. It´s a warm, homey kind of dish, like chicken soup, only a lot more filling. If you´re feeling lonely, order it on April 14th (known in Korea as “Black Day”), when unattached Koreans traditionally get together to eat zazangmen and lament their singledom.
Whatever day you visit, make sure you come to Koba hungry. The portions are generous, and every meal comes with an assortment of side dishes (banchan) that are continually refilled by the staff. The most standard banchan is kimchi – fermented cabbage with chili pepper, garlic and scallions, a combination that leaves the cabbage very spicy and uniquely bubbly in texture. Other side dishes include korean-style potato salad, a lightly seasoned bean sprouts salad, and fermented beets. All of these are excellent, and threaten to ruin your appetite if you dig into them too quickly before your entrees arrive.
The soups are good, if not remarkable. An egg soup is thick with scrambled bits of egg and contains baby shrimp that are high in flavour despite their tiny size. The miso soup (Koba also serves some Japanese food, including sushi) is decent, but muddled with too much soy sauce. Desserts are almost non-existent, unless you count the solitary “choco pie” listed in small letters in the drinks section of the menu; you´re probably better off going to one of the twenty or so Italian restaurants in the neighborhood for your coffee and cake.
The dessert list may not impress, but the savory stuff here is truly worthwhile. On each occasion I´ve visited Koba, nearly every one of the many little plates of Korean food has come close to being licked clean by our table´s patrons. But upon collecting the empty dishes, our vaguely Ukrainian waitress inevitably asks, “Did you like it?”
“Yes,” we reply.
Even after our third visit, she looks surprised. “What did you like?”
“Everything,” we say in unison. She looks like she might pass out from shock.
Of course, this is the same server who, on my first visit, tried gently to discourage me from ordering any Korean food. Clearly, she doesn´t personally find the more interesting half of the menu very appetizing, and even though she´s very nice and helpful and quick, she´s in need of some serious retraining, at the very least. Then again, this is also the restaurant that´s in the dead center of Old Town, but is only open Mondays through Fridays and seems all-around pretty unconcerned about generating any semblance of buzz or traffic, let alone regular customers.
There are no advertisements for Koba anywhere. There are no websites to be found. They look at me funny when I walk in the door. I know, I know: Koba´s just not that into me. But for the moment, at least, I´m into Koba – so they´ll just have to get used to my being there.
Prague 1, Old Town
Hours: Mon – Fri, 11:00 – 22:00
Tel: 224 813 433