“Koreans,'' Lisa Tolson explains, "measure the quality of a restaurant by the number of sides they get.''
They must love Rice Restaurant and Lounge, which serves so many side dishes, or banchan, the table can barely hold them all. They arrive in tiny bowls — sauteed turnips, tiny anchovies, blanched parsley, strips of fish cake, soy bean sprouts, thinly sliced and pickled daikon radishes, at least three kinds of kimchee — 15 or 16 in all. They are all made in-house, and many of the ingredients are grown in the owner's garden. "I've heard them called condiments,'' Lisa says, "but when I hear condiments I think of ketchup." Side dishes it is.
They are soon followed by bowls of rice, an egg soup akin to fluffy scrambled eggs, a miso soup with vegetables, platters of marinated pork, short ribs and rib eye, or bulogi. The beef and the short ribs are raw and are plopped onto small charcoal grills built into the center of each table. The meat cooks quickly, along with some garlic cloves, sliced onion and jalapenos. Lettuce leaves are filled with the meat and various bits of banchan.
This is barbecue Korean style, or maybe a Korean version of fajitas, but with a dizzying array of textures and flavors. It's a full-on display, exotic to the American palate, even one accustomed to the more common Chinese, Thai, Japanese or Vietnamese versions of Asian cuisine.
Rice Restaurant and Lounge is an adventure in dining, in more ways than one.
There's the challenging location, along an unforgiving stretch of W Hillsborough Avenue in Town 'N Country in the back of a shopping center in one half of a former supermarket.
Even half of a supermarket is too big for any restaurant, but especially one serving cuisine that has yet to attract a large following. The space seems disturbingly empty even at prime time on a Friday night, as if it is waiting for a party that never starts.
Still, the food is outstanding — fresh, flavorful, filling — even if you do have to create your own party.
The tables with grills are in a back room, past a row of private booths, a large sushi bar, a substantial liquor bar, a dance floor with a giant video screen, a row of very roomy banquettes and a kitchen big enough to serve a hotel.
Lisa, the daughter of owner Kay Womack, figures 90 percent of patrons are Koreans or Americans who have been to Korea and fell hard for the food. She organizes occasional dinners at the restaurant through Let's Cook and Eat Tampa at meetup.com.
The short ribs ($21.95) are tender and flavorful, as are the beef ($18.95) and marinated pork ($19.95). The pork belly ($18.95), grilled and cut into small chunks, was a bit chewy. The real fun is exploring the banchan. It's common in Korea to gather three or four of them with rice and call it a meal. Sweet, spicy, sour, salty, tender, chewy, crunchy — there is so much variety that the fun is trying different combinations. You won't find another Korean restaurant in Florida serving as many banchan, Lisa says, certainly not in the Tampa Bay area.
For an appetizer, try a kimchee ($10.95) or seafood ($12.95) pancake, which comes with a soy-based sauce, though be sure you have a big appetite because the amount of food that follows could make you question your judgment.
Tom Scherberger can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8312. He dines unannounced and the Times pays expenses.