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I-Ho’s Korean Grill
Get Schooled, Korean Style
Imagine a delectable little Korean oasis in the midst of meat and potatoes country. If you’re looking for a meal that takes you east of the Bridgers guarding our mountain valley, past American shores, past the cities of Europe to lands where spices vary and sesame and garlic play an important role in daily repast, I-Ho’s (pronounced E-Ho’s) Korean Grill is for you.
I made a visit to the restaurant, ready for some new flavors. Settling into my table, I greeted my friend and Korean culinary tour guide. Having lived in South Korea for four years, she was perfect for the job, and I couldn’t have picked a better dining companion. I was in for a few lessons concerning Korean food, dining customs, and culture. She, in turn, is always glad to taste the dishes that sustained her through her English teaching years in Seoul.
Service is swift and friendly, and while greeting us, our server recognized my fellow diner. Not many blonde haired, blue eyed chics can navigate their way around a Korean menu, pronounciation and food knowledge not only intact, but spot on.
While you wait for steaming piles of rice, fresh vegetables, and succulent chunks of meat, enjoy the casual atmosphere. A TV mounted in the corner plays a constant rotation of Korean torch singers belting out lush ballads and cutesy K-pop. A Korean flag hangs on the wall. Located on the Montana State University campus, the vibe is relaxed and friendly, and the fare is a good alternative for students looking to momentarily escape mundane cafeteria food.
I-Ho Pomeroy opened her namesake restaurant in ___. Since then, Bozeman has become more ethnically diverse in its food options. She has been turning out great Korean food from the start, and continues to uphold standards of quality and friendly service.
When the main entrees arrive, be prepared to dig in to plates of fried rice and noodles with veggies and meat. The flavors are wholesome and hearty, spicy and pungent. The portions are generous, so be prepared to take home extras.
In bygone days, specialty food stores abounded. It was the norm to buy your meat from the butcher, your spinach from the green-grocer, and your bread from the local bakery. Likewise in Korea, hole-in-the-wall restaurants specialize in signature dishes. Get your miso soup from the corner eatery and your soba noodles from the mom ‘n’ pop shop down the street. A restaurant will spend years perfecting a dish.
Here in Bozeman, ethnic food is limited (though options are a deliciously far cry from what it was 10 years ago), so all the Korean specialties house themselves at I-Ho’s. They are your one stop shop for a hot bowl of soup, marinated beef with vegetables, or Ho-Pong (Korean donuts dusted with sugar and topped with chocolate sauce) for your sweet tooth.
The spice cupboard in the average Korean home is a far cry from our usual oregano, cumin and cayenne laden racks. Some things stay the same (garlic is used regularly, and to healthy and tasty effect) but an array of pastes, sauces, and spices uncommon to Western taste include ginger, green onion, and sesame. These are light and refreshing flavors, and mixed with the elusive and earthy sweetness of bean paste and the fire of red chili pepper, make for a rounded and complete cuisine.
A bottle of Gojujong, (a red pepper paste made from red chili, glutoneus rice, fermented soybeans, and salt) is found in every Korean kitchen, and is waiting to add spice to vegetables and meat on every table in I-Ho’s.
One of the most widely known and frequently used condiments is Kim-Chi, a traditional fermented Korean dish. Though there are hundreds of varieties, a basic version is made with any combination of cabbage, radish, green onion, ginger, garlic, and fish sauce. It is pungent, pickled, and is often an acquired taste. I-Ho’s Kim-Chi is the real thing, and I relished the occasional zesty bite, while my pseudo Korean friend voraciously devoured piles of it. She has proven her Korean street cred by eating copious amounts of Korea’s official national dish.
On her experienced recommendation, I tried the Sizzling Bi-Bim Bob, a dish of Bulgogi (cooked marinated meat – beef in this case), vegetables, steamed rice, egg, and hot bean paste. It comes in a traditional stone pot called a “dolsot”, which continues to toast the rice after it is taken from the oven. When it arrived at the table, it sizzled with audible fervor and sent up a spicy steam that made my mouth water. I recommend the hot version on a wintery day, but the dish is available cold as well. After mixing it with a good amount of the all but required Gojujong, I dug in. The tender beef was cooked to succulent texture and almost falling apart, the vegetables were fresh, and the sticky rice held it all together.
As we ate, I was regaled with tales of street food and nighttime revelry. I imagined stuffing myself full of bits and bites of the street food common in Korean cities. Out for the evening, exploring the city, living the life of a young American English teacher in the crowded streets of Seoul. Pulling all nighters in eateries and clubs and recharging in the early morning hours with bowls of Ra-Men noodles. The subway stops running at midnight and didn’t start again until six am, so if you got stuck downtown, you would wander happily, sleepy and satiated, until you found another crevice in your tummy to fill with food from one of the many vendors and street carts. Duk-Bok-Gi, small cylindrical rice cakes cooked in a spicy sauce, is a popular street food snack, perfect to munch on at two in the morning. By adding vegetables and changing the seasoning, I-Ho has created her own hearty and tasty version that she serves as an entree.
The ride home would blur, bright colors still flashing before your eyes. The ever present hordes of people thinned out for a blessed window of time, and you bursting with dumplings and smelling of sweet sesame oil and city air.
I emerge out of this daydream in beautiful Southwest Montana. Fortunately, I-Ho’s has got you covered. Bozeman may not have quite the same array of street food, but bites such as Yaki Mandu (fried wontons filled with cabbage, tofu, onion, and carrots) fill a snack sized pocket in the belly. A fun dinner out with friends would consist of sharing various appetizers and glasses of brown rice tea. You’ll want to taste test all the dishes on the table. The Bin-Dae Duk (Korean pancakes made of mung beans, green onion, bean sprouts, and black eyed beans) are consistently fresh, satisfying, and refreshing to a palate dulled on subpar burgers, greasy buffalo wings, and wilted house salads.
Imagination will take you far, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the memories and stories of another place. If I-Ho’s is the closest I get to Korean shores for awhile, I will gladly visit Bozeman’s very own portkey to eastern shores. The flavors fill, satisfy, and transport you to a different world – one not so far away as you would think. It’s as close as the locally owned eatery on Bozeman’s very own university campus. You can have your mountains, your ski-hills, your wide open spaces, and eat your I-Ho’s too.
A Bozeman native, Chelsea Hunt has witnessed an explosion of good food in the valley in recent years. Reading about, writing about, and eating good food make her happy. photos Klaralyn Gatz