My brother Mark was in tears – and it was a good thing.
He’d ordered his spicy squid as hot as Happy House Korean Restaurant could make it – “Oh, we can make it hot!” our waitress chimed in. Since the restaurant’s name makes it clear they aim to please their customers, even Mark – who is legendary in our family for his love of spicy food – was sweating and tearing up on just the first bite of the bright red curls of seafood.
Since I’m not interested in annihilating my taste buds with nuclear heat, I sampled my brother Piers’ spicy octopus instead, which looked very similar – only he’d simply asked for hot. I savored the bite of succulent octopus, which was tender and richly flavored, before the heat came blazing on at the end. (I was doubly glad not to have tasted Mark’s!)
Happy House is inside an old diner in south Augusta. This is “hole-in-the-wall” dining, but don’t let that dissuade you. The waitresses – pretty in bright red aprons – welcomed our large group with smiles, and during our nearly two-hour visit, the restaurant rapidly filled with diners and appetizing scents.
I’m not an expert on Korean food by any means. I’ve enjoyed the bulgogi during the Arts in the Heart of Augusta festival, and I’ve sung a time or two in a Korean restaurant/karaoke bar. For those who are even more newbie than I am, the dining experience typically starts with an array of appetizers in tiny dishes, offered as part of the meal, no charge. (These are known as banchan, or side dishes. Or, according to one Huffington Post article, “free side thingies.”)
They aren’t always the same every time, but at Happy House that night, our dishes included various kimchis: the traditional spicy cabbage, plus cucumber and bean sprout kimchis. There was also chilled steamed broccoli and Asian radish (daikon) two ways: fermented and spicy.
The kimchis were lovely. The pickled vegetables still had some snap and just the right amount of heat for me, with little red flecks of pepper throughout. The broccoli was rather unassuming, but a nice relief against the heat, and offered some welcome green vegetables.
We actually ordered our meals before the banchan arrived. Happy House’s menu is in both Korean and English, a good sign if you had any doubt of the restaurant’s authenticity. It also offers some nuggets of “Soup Nazi” gold (for those familiar with the character, based on a real-life person, from the Seinfeld TV show): “Rice will not be offered” and “More than 10 people are considered as a group customer, can not order ‘Lunch special’ and must make a reservation.”
The menu itself features appetizers such as dumplings or a rice cake with vegetables, egg and hot sauce; main entrees with rice, including a variety of beef, seafood, tofu and other vegetarian options; Korean soups, including a daunting Spicy Soup With Intestines; Hot Pot, all spicy and featuring mostly seafood options and one pork, for two people to share; House Specials, which also serve two, with a couple of options needing to be ordered a day in advance; and noodles as soups or stir-fried.
Our large table ordered a little of everything. My mom had a late lunch, so she chose something she thought would be light, the Korean-style pancake appetizer. We all laughed when it came – it was nearly the size of a hubcap! Our waitress briskly cut the wheel into triangles with a pair of scissors and served it up with a soy sauce-based dipping sauce with just a little hint of spice. It was terrific – a crisp exterior encasing a moist interior, with every bite loaded with onions and firm squid.
My sister-in-law Shannon and her mom ordered the bulgogi to share and passed some down to me. It was tender and the meat was marinated – I could detect a little garlic and ginger – but it wasn’t as brown or lacquered or deeply flavored as other bulgogis I’ve had.
My husband, Sean, and I ordered something off the specials, the seafood and beef roasted on a grill. We’d ordered something similar at a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles a few years back, so were excited to start grilling at our table.
Similar to in L.A., our waitress brought out a grill (placed at an adjacent table for more room) and a platter of marinated beef, shrimp and squid, plus mushrooms and onions. She fired it up – and even better, offered to grill for us!
It was so fun. Plus, they brought out rice, romaine leaves and sauce that we could enjoy with our meats.
We could use the lettuce to wrap the meat with sauce and rice, but the romaine with its broad rib was pretty inflexible, so I opted for just piling meat and sauce on my rice bowl. It was good – but I was surprised at how it really tasted almost exactly like the bulgogi, and the seafood was similarly mild. We both heaped on the sweet and mildly spicy sauce to add extra savor.
Meanwhile, Shannon’s dad ordered the stir-fried noodles with seafood and vegetables, and it might have been the best dish of all. It wasn’t too spicy, the noodles were thick and tender and the dish itself was saucy and slightly sweet, loaded with seafood as well as zucchini, carrots and onions. The rich flavor of that brown sauce permeated every pasta strand.
While we dined and shared, we also kept our eyes on the other tables. As another waitress brought out a steaming bowl to an adjacent diner, Piers, Mark and I turned to follow the delicious aroma. Slowly, the diner turned, too, and caught us staring. We all had a good laugh, and she told us that she’d ordered the kim chi soup, and that yes, it was delicious.
Meanwhile, Mark finished less than half his entrée. I had a feeling he’d finally met his match – until I talked to him the next day. He’d brought home the leftovers and eaten them at lunch.
“It was even hotter the next day,” he said. He sounded happy.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Happy House Korean Restaurant, 3008 Deans Bridge Road
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
ENTREE COST: $10.99 to $33.99 (for dishes for two diners)
SECOND HELPING: (706) 798-4055