The Korean-American influence is one of the biggest dining stories of the past decade.
In New York, David Chang opened the hugely influential restaurant Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004. He's gone on to launch a bevy of restaurants. In San Francisco, Danny Bowien (born in Korea but raised in Oklahoma) joined former Bar Tartine chef Anthony Myint to create Mission Chinese Food. It launched Bowien to chef stardom. Bowien, who cooks what he calls "Americanized Oriental food," is working on opening more places around the globe.
Yet L.A. is ground zero for the infusion of Korean influences into American dining. Koreatown, an area teeming with family restaurants, noodle bars and late-night karaoke joints, has been called the most vibrant expat community in the world. Many Angelenos know what hotteok is, as well as the more common kimchi and bibimbap. Roy Choi continues to be the most talked-about chef outside that city's borders, thanks to his Mexican-Korean fusion Kogi BBQ taco truck and several ensuing brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Of course, Madison has its own high-profile Korean-heritage chef in Tory Miller, who, like Bowien, was adopted and raised here in the Midwest. Miller's background informs the dishes on the menu at Graze and L'Etoile.
All this is to say Korean culinary traditions and Korean-American experiences have mainstreamed over the past few years in a massive way.
That might not be so apparent in Madison, where access has been limited. New Seoul has been open near UW Hospital for more than two decades, and was joined more recently by K-Pepper in Middleton.
Sol's on the Square -- actually just off the Square at 117 E. Mifflin St. -- fills a hole in the sparse Korean-food landscape. It serves the traditional Korean cuisine that provides context for understanding the national phenomenon that is Chang, Bowien and Choi.
Sol Yu came to Madison to study at the UW and works the front of the house. Her father, Young Yu, operated a restaurant in Seoul for over 16 years, and is chef.
Traditional banchan, or small dishes like sides, arrive on the table at no cost and are a foursome of pickled yellow radish, funky fried tofu strips, gloriously tangy pickled cucumber and a devilishly zingy kimchi. The flavors are clean and refreshing, the textures addictive.
There are a number of small plates that work best for sharing, and require exploration: the light, house-made pork dumplings called mandoo, the delightfully slippery sweet potato noodles called japchae, and the energizing and nutty steamed spinach namul.
There is also ddeokbokki, which is typically translated as "rice cakes" but is more like rice dumplings drowning in a thick red pepper sauce, along with eggs and cabbage. The dumplings have a satisfyingly sleek texture and are known for their ability to absorb alcohol and cure hangovers. This is authentic street or cafe food.
The menu, which is the same at lunch and dinner, is composed of noodle bowl dishes (guksu); rice bowl dishes, or hot pots; and Korean barbecue (bulgogi). The noodle bowls are large and full of transparent flavors, a signature of good Korean cooking. The wonderful, cold-weather janchi guksu arrives steaming in a balanced fish broth with seaweed and beef, and easily makes two meals for $9.
Bibimbap, the internationally famous rice dish, can be ordered here either in a regular bowl or in a hot stone, which crisps the rice. It is a difficult decision, as the hot stone makes for a pervasive smokiness while the regular bowl retains its brighter aromatics of spice and rice wine. With either option, mix in the perfect fiery-sweet chili sauce.
Gimbap, or Korean sushi, appears as cheerful wide rolls filled with crab, egg and spinach alongside a small, warm bowl of fish broth with green scallions. Again, the ingredients are high-quality and well handled.
The bulgogi most Americans are exposed to are beef, but Sol's offers pork, chicken and squid as well. The spicy, surprisingly tender squid is especially noteworthy.
Budae jjigae, which is also called "Johnson Tang," is a dish born from postwar hardship. It combines a spicy noodle bowl with American military items like sausage and Spam, sometimes even cheese. Sol's version also includes rice dumplings and kimchi -- sorry, no cheese -- and is a must-try. Its curative properties are likewise famous.
Sol's remodeled space is comfortable beige and dark wood with some red clay accents. There is a stocked bar along with a good tap pour list.
The food is straightforward with a Zen-like undertone of quality features. The colors pop, the broths are immaculate, and the arrangements on the plate or in the bowl are meticulous. Sol's helps explain what all the Korean-food fuss is about.