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Korean charm: Asian Pear offers exquisite, affordable dishes in welcoming atmosphere

Korean pancakes are made with cake flour for a lighter, crispier finish. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

South Korea has arrived in U.S. popular culture. Just last month, the Seoul-lensed “Parasite” cleaned up at the Academy Awards, while the new album from K-pop sensation BTS skyrocketed to the top of the charts.

South Korean food is also making inroads in the United States after years of trailing behind Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine in popularity. Even in Albuquerque, with its relative dearth of Korean restaurants, kimchi and bulgogi have become familiar words in the culinary lexicon. Last year, an outpost of the Korean fried chicken chain Bonchon opened on the West Side and the Soo Bak Seoul food truck opened a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in Nob Hill.

Among the more established Korean restaurants in town, Asian Pear occupies a unique niche. It’s small, tidy and uncomplicated, built as much for takeout as it is for dining in. The no-frills presentation belies an exceedingly welcoming atmosphere with smiles all around and complimentary samples delivered to your table. The experience feels more like visiting a friend’s kitchen than eating at a restaurant.

Originally Downtown on Central, Asian Pear moved to a strip mall near Paseo del Norte and San Pedro NE a couple of years ago. The newer space is light-filled and compact, most of it given over to an open kitchen where Eunjin Kim Seo, who runs the place with her husband, Jason, is a visible presence. She and the famously friendly staff wear T-shirts bearing the words “Fresh & Healthy.” Korean pop music plays over the speakers.

Along with a few tables, there’s a countertop along the front where you can sit and watch workers wipe down cars at Mister Car Wash across the street.

Seo’s recipes reflect the cuisine of her native land, a rugged place where food gets pickled, fermented and marinated to make it palatable and extend its life. The concise menu offers the usual assortment of meats or tofu in bowls ($6.98 to $8.48) or compartmentalized boxes ($8.48 to $10.98) called dosirak – Korean for “packed meal.”

The combo special at Asian Pear includes rice, two choices of protein and a rolled omelette with vegetables. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

The combo special, at $10.98 the most expensive dish on the menu, provides a comprehensive introduction to the place. You get a choice of two meats or tofu, along with rice, glass noodles, vegetables and a couple of pot stickers. The bulgogi, corkscrews of grilled beef, was tender and faintly smoky. The barbecued chicken, ruddy from the marinade, included a mix of moist, well-seasoned white and dark meat.

The highlight of the dish, though, was the gyeran mari, a slice of rolled omelet that’s a popular street food in Korea. It’s made by mixing beaten eggs with vegetables and repeatedly folding the mix over as it cooks in a pan. Asian Pear’s version is exquisitely fluffy and holds the soy and chili sauces like a sponge.

Along with the meal came a couple of complimentary samples in small cups. The first, thin-sliced cucumber in oil infused with red pepper, was blazing-hot and had me pawing desperately for my Thai iced tea ($3.68). A sample of kimchi, cabbage chopped and fermented with chili paste, was pungent and tangy but had little heat.

The kimchi’s flavor was somewhat muted in an otherwise superlative dish of Korean pancakes. The pancakes are fried to a golden brown, cut up and served on a paper plate with red chili dipping sauce. Seo uses cake flour for a crispier shell and softer center. A full order with vegetables or kimchi is $6.48, but I found the half order ($3.98) plenty for two to share. It’s one of the best side dishes in town.

Asian Pear is a no muss, no fuss kind of place with a tight focus that’s refreshing to find in a genre of dining that too often strays far afield from its origins. The level of service is an added bonus.

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