Most Baltimoreans, no matter what their ethnic origin, feel about as comfortable at a Chinese restaurant as they do at an American steak house. But because Baltimore has a sizable Korean-American population, Korean restaurants here don't have to modify their cuisine to fill up their dining rooms. Walk into Nam Kang, the new Korean restaurant on Maryland Avenue, and you may experience culture shock -- pleasant culture shock if you're at all adventurous.
The night we ate in the brightly lit, basement restaurant it was packed, and we were the only Caucasian Americans (as my politically correct kid calls us) in the place. The menu is long and somewhat intimidating if you don't know anything about Korean food.
Where to begin? There are none of the familiar appetizers unless you want sushi. Soups seem to be a main course. And there must be a hundred choices of barbecues, hot pots, buckwheat noodle dishes, rice combinations and so on.
But don't let me scare you away, because the very fact that the food at Nam Kang hasn't been Americanized makes the restaurant worth experiencing. I had expert advice in ordering; but if you don't, here are some suggestions.
I'm making two assumptions. First, you like highly spiced food. And second, while you're adventurous, you aren't quite ready for cold shredded jellyfish in a garlic-flavored sauce or a soup made of vegetables, cows blood, bone and noodles.
To start, kim chee will arrive at your table. When Korean restaurants first opened in Baltimore, kim chee was limited to a side dish of pickled cabbage. What you get at Nam Kang is a colorful assortment of little bowls: dark green spinach, pale green bok choy, bean sprouts, tofu, cubes of turnip -- all brightened with peppery specks of red and tasting of various degrees of fire. A gorgeous spray a fresh green leaf lettuce looks cooling, but next to it is a bowl of incendiary bean paste and slices of jalapeno pepper to wrap in it.
The clear, delicate broth of kal bi tang soup ($7.95) is particularly appealing in contrast to such a fiery beginning. The big chunks of beef short ribs, scallions and slender rice noodles make it a good, solid main course; but your waiter will be glad to bring you small bowls if you want to share. Then you might try the assorted seafood ($11.95). The shrimp, squid, sea scallops and fish, ruby strips of pepper, yellow baby corn and slithery strips of sea cucumber seem pretty but tame at first; the spicy flavors build explosively. A contrasting dish might be gool pa jun ($8.95), a Korean pancake big as a plate and glistening with scallions and bits of oyster. You dip the pieces of pancake in a soy-based, sesame-flavored sauce. It's good, but greasier than it has to be.
The one dish our waitress recommended for newcomers to Korean food was bulgoki ($11.95), the only food we had that wasn't visually appealing. It made up for what it lacked in looks with its tender beef and subtle barbecue flavor.
We never got around to asking about dessert. With our check, the waitress brought us sweet, juicy little tangerines, exactly the right ending for our fiery meal.
Where: 2126 Maryland Ave.
Hours: Open from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Thursdays through Tuesdays, closed Wednesdays.
Credit cards: AE, MC, V.
Features: Korean food.
Non-smoking section? No.
Call: (410) 685-6237.