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Quick bites on South King

By Nadine Kam

LAST UPDATED: 2:01 a.m. HST, Dec 8, 2010

If you're eastbound on King Street, it's hard to miss the bright fluorescent lights of Mama Woo's, obviously fast food. With all the rushing around that precedes the holidays, fast works for me.

Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** - excellent
*** - very good; exceeds expectations
** - average
* - below average.
I went in expecting Chinese food, but could I have seen the smaller lettering from the street, I would have seen the words "Korean B-B-Q." Luckily, I'm a flexible eater, so Korean it was.

The complex is also home to Chinpei Ramen and Pho Thinh, also offering hot, quick bites to send you on your way, so I checked in with both as well.

First daughter Kris Kim hopes others pay homage here to her mama, Jung Woo, who grew up in Korea cooking over open fires and burying kim chee in the ground to ferment. So the food might be fast, but it has some authentic cred, with mama Woo in the house five days a week.

The place to start is with the twice-cooked, extra-crispy spicy chicken wings ($7.95) with a touch of sweetness, or, if you like fish, the char-broiled saba ($7.95), as good as you'd get at a more formal sit-down restaurant.

Popular with fans are the fried egg-topped kim chee fried rice ($6.95) and the Korean-style, barbecue-flavored, double-patty loco moco ($7.75). You can also find luxuries such as deep-fried oysters.

This little restaurant offers a generous array of vegetables and starchy items, with a choice of four on regular plates and two on minis. These range from standards of kim chee, marinated cabbage and daikon, bean sprouts and potato salad to chap chae and crunchy lotus root.

Like any caring mama, Mama Woo's caters to every food need, whether you're in need of kim chee by the quart ($6 to $7.50), catering for your next party, uncooked meat by the pound for your next barbecue or family packs involving combos of barbecue beef, kalbi, chicken, mandoo, vegetables and rice ($19 to $38.50) if you want to give your own mama a break from cooking. What a nice holiday gift that would be.

The Web-savvy eatery also makes specials available online. Check out

The first dish that caught my eye on the menu at Pho Thinh was crab soup. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday special and it wasn't Saturday. Oh well, there were plenty of other options on the menu offering consolation.

Anyway, with a name like Pho Thinh, I had come for pho, with its wonderful anise-perfumed beef broth and your choice of one, two or three of seven beef options -- from fatty brisket to tripe -- for $8.25. If you want more than three items, side orders of beef, chicken, tofu or vegetables will cost $2 to $3 apiece.

Of the three restaurants, the Hong clan's is the most formal, although it's still casual, warm and inviting. In the evening it glows with the soft light of Asian lanterns, with coolie hats that serve as sconces.

There is also plenty more than pho here, including refreshing cold vermicelli bowls with the crunch of cucumbers, crisp bean sprouts and a chiffonade of lettuce, plus your choice of 13 meat items -- such as lemongrass chicken or beef satay -- vegetable, shrimp or spring rolls topping the cold noodle dish. Or, have your entree on a rice plate.

Instead of thick local-style curry, the yellow curries ($8.95 to $10.95) served here are more delicate and soupy.

Though satisfied with a vermicelli bowl of butterflied, grilled shrimp ($9.50) and one of the house specials of a grilled pork platter ($12.95) that could serve two with its stacks of do-it-yourself rice paper wraps and vegetables, I still craved the crab soup and returned on a Saturday.

With expectations high, I brought along a friend. My reaction was, "Wow." Then, "Oh no."

My friend asked whether anything was wrong, but I was just thinking that when this review is published, I'll never be able to get a table on a Saturday night again. I hope they can expand the offering to other days of the week, but this soup takes time to make, with stock made from scratch, the meat cooked and stirred with egg and tomatoes for a textured cloud of pure heaven. It's then presented with the fixings of pho, such as bean sprouts and mint, plus green onions and a little bit of chili sauce for good measure. It's amazing.

This is one of those places I'm actually sorry to have to share.

This unassuming little ramen joint has many of the attributes of other favorites around town, as well as some features of izakaya.

In addition to popular bowls of miso ramen ($6.70 to $8.50) and spicy char siu ($7.95 to $9.75) there is also shoyu char siu ramen ($7.45 to $9.75). There are 19 choices in all. For those who eat vegetables, the gomoku ramen ($7.45 to $9.25) presents a picturesque display of carved carrots, won bok and corn, with bay shrimp and squid, in its smoky kombu broth.

When noodles are not enough, you can bulk up your meal with a chicken katsu ($4.50), stir-fry of lamb and onions ($7.25) or chicken karaage ($4) puffed up with what seems to be rice flour. It's best eaten when hot and crispy. In spite of the low price, the portions are equal or greater to a typical izakaya in terms of value.

You can also order rice dishes, such as curry rice chicken ($6.75) and char siu don ($5.50).


Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser.

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