1010 Niagara Falls Blvd., Tonawanda, NY 14150
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"Though all Korean restaurants in the area have the feel of family-run establishments, Koreana is perhaps the closest you'll get to dining at someone's home."
If Korean food were to disappear entirely from Western New York - something we occasionally think could happen - it would be in part because of locals not understanding the cuisine's appeal, but also because of the proprietors' inability to actually appeal to locals. Koreana, a tiny Korean restaurant that appears to be an annex to an Asian grocery store, is so hidden at the intersection of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Sheridan that we wouldn't be surprised if you missed it - though it's at a highly trafficked corner, the recessed, shadowed location in a small strip mall likely accounts for its relative anonymity. And its menu, consisting of only two handfuls of choices, doesn't rival either Woo Chon or frankly any of the other Korean restaurants we've visited over the past decade or two. Yet the quality of its dishes is good enough for an occasional meal, inexpensive enough not to hurt your wallet, and pleasantly enough presented to serve as a gentle entree into one of the world's most delicious, yet least appreciated cuisines.
The Story: It is entirely possible that Koreana has the shortest menu of any Korean restaurant, including small shops in Seoul, we've ever seen: there are a total of 12 dishes on the menu, each served with rice, and none even pretending to be accessible to non-Korean patrons. Seven are soups, including Kimchi Stew ($7), Potato Soup ($7) and Beef Bone Stew ($7), Ox Short Rib Soup ($7.50), Cabbage Miso Soup, also described as ox bone beef Miso soup with cabbage ($7), a Hot & Spicy Soup with meats, vegetables, and red pepper powder ($7.50), and Tofu Stew with mild tofu, red pepper powder, egg, shrimp, and clams ($7). We've never been huge fans of Korean soups, and so went instead with several of the items that we've come to love elsewhere. Three are described below; we skipped the other two, Bibim Bap - a rice-heavy dish with vegetables on top ($7), and Pork Kalbi ($8), soy-marinated pork rib slices served with vegetables.
Highs: Called Jeyuk-bokkeum ($7.50) on this menu and the more easily illiterated Jae Yook Bok Kum elsewhere, Koreana's rendition of this spicy red pepper pork with vegetable dish was good, but not outstanding. Served elsewhere as a huge plate with large hunks of tofu, the Jayuk-bokkeum here arrives here with none, balanced instead by large pieces of pork and sauteed onions. The underlying flavor of hot chili is, by design, running throughout the meat, but the balance of lightness and freshness achieved by the original dish is missing, rendered more carnivorous and less expensively.
Bulgogi, also broken down sometimes as bul go gi, comes in two primary variants at most Korean restaurants: the traditional sweet garlicky soy sauce marinade, ready for grilling beef, and a spicier pork or chicken version that's coated in a thick red sauce derived from red pepper and the spicy Korean paste gochu jang. Koreana serves the sweet garlic soy version with beef for $7.50, and the so-called Hot Chicken Bulgogi for $7.
Both versions, like the Jeyuk-bokkeum, would fall into the "good but not great" category. Bulgogi typically benefits from being grilled rather than sauteed, as it is treated here, and Koreana's version has none of the slight char or differential texture offered by broiling on an open flame. Still, the flavor of its sauce is familiar enough, as is the Hot Chicken Bulgogi's, which glows as orange as the spicy pork dish and to many mouths would taste pretty much the same - after all, the red pepper, vegetables, and gochu jang seem to carry over a lot here from dish to dish. However, whereas the Jeyuk-bokkeum's pork thoroughly absorbs the flavor of its marinade, the Hot Chicken Bulgogi retains some of the flavor of poultry; the choice of either dish is purely a matter of preference.
Lows: Though we found Koreana's items to be more than edible and closer in flavor to the originals than, say, a Chinese restaurant might come, each of the dishes we tried was good, not great. They're served here with a relatively bare complement of side dishes, including the spicy pickled cabbage dish kimchee, bean sprouts, and rice, and unlike competitors, at prices that are perhaps too affordable to expect much more. Our impression is that the soups - for those who like them - may be more authentic, but the non-soup items we tried were a little bit off.
Though all Korean restaurants in the area have the feel of family-run establishments, Koreana is perhaps the closest you'll get to dining at someone's home. Rather than offering the table service and frills of a typical Korean restaurant, it actually looks like it was designed to serve as a small family's store-adjacent comic book library and workday kitchen, or perhaps a home away from home for Korean college students; its tables are buttressed by shelves full of manga comic books, and its few seats were barely occupied when we arrived. You can vaguely see the kitchen area when you dine, not enough to enjoy the view, but rather to let you know that your order isn't being prepared using the huge collection of grilling tools and service plates found at higher-end Korean shops; you eat mostly off of styrofoam. Consequently, this isn't a restaurant to visit on a date, unless your date loves cartoons and doesn't mind the extremely limited menu.
The Verdict: What ultimately makes Koreana both interesting and disappointing is its utter lack of pretense; you discover it, find an inexpensive, limited menu inside, and eat a fine but unremarkable Korean meal in clean but simple surroundings. As you leave, or perhaps as you finish your meal, you realize that you've gotten what you paid for but nothing more. There is seemingly no ambition for this place to become the next big Western New York Korean place, or perhaps, even to be discovered in its recessed location; one gets the sense that the owners will be content to sell a short list of sub-$8, simple meals, and those who are interested in trying them will neither rave nor complain. That's not a bad thing; it is what it is, and perhaps by design, Koreana will continue to enjoy anonymity relative to its local Korean peers.