FOOD FOLKS have been saying for years that Korean food will be the next big thing, joining other already popular Asian cuisines. But their predictions haven't materialized, and Korean food only inches forward in American food consciousness, never joining the ranks of Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese. This seems to be fine with Korean Americans, if the location of true Korean restaurants is any evidence. The best ones are isolated within Korean communities. Around here that means a trip to Lynnwood/Edmonds or Lakewood/Tacoma.

Korean food remains ghettoized for a number of reasons, both culinary and cultural. Centuries of oppression, especially from Japan, may be one of the reasons that Koreans seem to keep their cuisine a secret. There are dozens of Korean-owned restaurants in Seattle hiding behind the façade of Japanese teriyaki. Tokyo Garden teriyaki on the Ave, for example, is actually Korean-owned and serves a few cheap and tasty Korean specialties, listed at the bottom of the menu. Minami Teriyaki on Broadway serves three or four Korean dishes, but you'll have to ask what they are because most of their names are only found posted on the wall in Korean.

Secrecy was not the attitude of John, the super-charming waiter who served me and the friends I brought to Hanil Garden, in the International District. John was our cultural ambassador in this rambling, empty establishment. We sat in the greenhouse-like area that overlooks Hing Hay park, watching the artificial waterfall that flows over curved windows, unsure if this was an intentional water feature or a leak from the Bush Hotel up above. John helped us pick out a bottle of soju, the slightly sweet, fragrant Korean vodka, which was served beside an impressive array of banchan, or kimchee. Better Korean restaurants vie over the number of different banchan served, and Hanil is definitely a finalist. The usual cool and spicy Napa kimchee was presented along with pickled seaweed, tender chives, and a ginseng-like root that John told us was "like Viagra." The only loser was a thick potato salad.

Next up was Hae-mul pajun, a seafood and vegetable pancake. Hanil's pajun was generous on the scallions and bell pepper without being weighed down with too much seafood. The Hae-mul pajun at Shilla across from Denny Park is very different: thick instead of thin, rectangular instead of round, and, frankly, not sufficiently oily. But Shilla has many attributes, including a serene interior, waitresses occasionally dressed in traditional Korean dresses, and almost the entire place fitted for barbecue-at-your-table bul go gi. I grabbed Rachel Kessler, The Stranger's unrepentant carnivore, for a fabulous meaty feast. After the waitress set up our grill, Rachel's huge pile of thinly sliced, marinated raw pork arrived, along with my scored and twisted shrimp. The simple grilling preparation, without a heavy sauce or oil from stir-frying, made this a comfortably satiating meal. Rachel looked forward to a future visit to try Yook Hwae, the Korean steak tartare. I'll be trying nang myun--hand-pressed buckwheat noodles.

For cheap Korean, the best place in town is the U-District's Korean Kitchen. The food isn't of the quality of Hanil or Shilla, but it has a homemade appeal that matches the '70s suburban dining-room décor, and motherly chef Mrs. Kim accommodates special requests. In the end, all my dining companions, formerly Korean-food novices, became Korean converts: another small step forward in the Korean food revolution. The two Koreas are in the news, Margaret Cho is on the screen, and kimchee is on supermarket shelves, but will we ever get a Korean restaurant on Broadway?

Hanil Garden
409 Maynard Ave S, 587-0464. Daily 11 am-11 pm
(karaoke after 9 pm). Full bar. $$

2300 Eight Ave, 623-9996. Daily 11 am-10 pm.
Full bar. $$

Korean Kitchen
4142 Brooklyn Ave #104, 548-1527. Mon-Sat
11 am-8:30 pm. $

Price Scale (per entrée)
$=$10 and under; $$=$10-$20; $$$=$20 and up