Korean food isn’t exactly the neglected stepchild of Asian cuisine, but many Westerners are introduced to it long after they have been dining on Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese fare.
When that happy moment arrives, the reaction is often, “Wow, where have you been all my life?” And your chopsticks plunge right back into whatever’s on the plate.
You can find that experience at Silla, a popular Korean restaurant in Aurora. Tucked beside an auto repair shop at 3005 S. Peoria St., Silla does a brisk daily lunch and dinner trade.
The décor is sleek, almost spartan, with stone tiles, suspended light fixtures with bell-shaped globes, and steel-gray panels on the booths, which dominate the room. Low-volume rock music is pumped in from overhead speakers.
An encouraging sign: The place draws a loyal following of Korean ex-pats.
They come for dishes such as chik nengmyun ($9.95), a summery salad of chilled buckwheat noodles bound with red-chile paste. Assorted pickled vegetables dot the dish, and you get a dash of protein with half a boiled egg. The contrasting noodles and sauce are an excellent combo of cool and hot, though the spice level doesn’t trigger a massive endorphin rush like you would get with habaneros.
Another winner was a zippy stew made with kimchi, the fermented, pickled vegetable melange that has as many variations as Korea has cooks, combined with shaved pork. At $8.95, it was one of those hearty winter soups that can satisfy even when the mercury starts flirting with the top end of the thermometer.
Silla does not skimp on the portions. Not that the main proteins are ridiculously sized, as you find in so many chain restaurants; it’s just that the go-withs pile up.
Example: On my first visit, I ordered what sounded like three small plates. The waiter eyeballed me and asked, “So all for you? Wow.”
A plate of boolgogi ($6.95), thin slices of marinated rib-eye steak, was accompanied by a half-dozen small side bowls. There was stewed eggplant, a stack of slightly chewy fish cakes about the size of poker chips, a scallion pancake, fragrant kimchi, a cucumber salad, and slivered daikon pickled with rice vinegar. It also came with a bowl of clear broth — albeit a bit under-seasoned — with scallions and what looked like thin, translucent slices of turnips.
In a touch I’d never seen, a waitress bearing tongs and large kitchen shears sliced the rib-eye tableside. Those shears were also plunged into the buckwheat noodles salad, severing the dense pile on bisecting blade-strokes.
Weekday lunches feature a bento box special. It’s a ton of food: You get to choose grilled meats, rice, chapchae cellophane noodles, steaming beef broth, veggies, plus a sampling of banchan pickle dishes to sample. At $6.95, it’s a howling deal.
Another winner was a small plate of oyster pancakes. There were about eight of them, silver-dollar size, bound with egg and studded with the shucked shellfish. Having just spent 10 days in Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry, this savory dish was a nice way to avoid going cold turkey on oysters.
Not all the food is inexpensive.
In the evenings, multi-course meals are offered for groups of two to four to share. They start at $49.95 and run to $99.95.
Dinner is where you’ll encounter fish dishes that are less familiar to stateside seafood menus, such as hairtail, angler fish, which looks like a cross between a piranha and the creature in “Alien,” and croaker. There are casseroles on the menu, including a huk-jumso jungol ($34.95), billed as a spicy black goat with vegetables. The adventurous can also try the fish-egg stew ($13.95).
Make it a point to try the o-ri gui ($19.95), a barbecued duck with deep flavors and none of the oiliness that sometimes creeps into the dish. The nakji bokum ($17.95) was a delightful dish of spicy sauteed baby octopus, which bear none of toughness of adults of the species.
In a nice touch, the meal ended with a complimentary glass of sikhye, a cool, semi-sweet beverage made by pouring malt water onto cooked rice.
About the service. I found it friendly, but a bit sluggish. After I was seated on my first visit, it took nearly 10 minutes for a waiter to appear, and well before he got to me, he had taken and posted the orders of two diners who arrived several minutes after I did. He also disappeared for a large chunk of the meal, and the check took long enough to arrive that it made me wonder if customers were supposed to pay at the register. They weren’t.
Silla has a full bar with Korean and domestic beers — a popular wash-down for this and all Asian foods — plus wine and cocktails.
For a taste of Seoul and the “other” Asia, Silla is worth a visit.
William Porter: 303-954-1877, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/williamporterdp
Korean. 3005 S. Peoria St., Aurora, 303-338-5070 facebook.com/SillaRestaurant
** ½ Very Good/Great
Atmosphere: Quiet room with contemporary decor
Service: Pleasant and informed, but can be slow on occasion
Beverages: Wine, beer, cocktails
Plates: Lunch specials in the $6.95-$9.95 range. Full dinners are pricier ($20-plus), and there are multi-course meals for a tableful of people going from $49.95-$99.95.
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Details: Parking lot
Our star system:
**: Very Good
Stars reflect the dining reviewer’s overall reaction to the restaurant’s food, service and atmosphere.