Kaya – Killer Korean Cuisine (Grade: B)

Kaya consistently produces fantastic Korean standards with effortless grace at surprisingly inexpensive prices.  Located just outside Langley Air Force Base’s King Street gate and next to a dry cleaners, Kaya sits roughly across the street from the Osan barbershop (is King Street going to become Hampton’s Koreatown?).  It’s so far off any main thoroughfare that you’ll never know it’s there unless you go out of your way to look for it.  That, or you work on Langley, which seems to be the case during any given lunch hour, when the place is packed with fatigue-shorn airmen wolfing down plates of bulgogi.  Considering the fact that many of these folks have been stationed in Korea at some point in time, their patronage is not something to take lightly.  They have, after all, consumed the real deal on the Korean peninsula, and find themselves drawn to the charms of Kaya’s kitchen.

I’ll tell you up front I’ve never had Korean food in Korea, but I have had it in Japan and on some Pacific islands, so I think I have a general sense of what the stuff is supposed to taste like.  And my impression is Kaya nails it on every front.  Unfortunately, the restaurant also nails the typical Korean restaurant ambiance.  Which is to say there is none.  Kaya is in a space formerly occupied by a crummy take-out pizza joint (I had the misfortune of dining there once just before the place closed up shop).  This means that Kaya is a Korean restaurant in a space that is painfully obviously a former crummy take-out pizza joint.  The bottom half of the walls is red, the top half is green, the ceiling tiles are the off-white industrial-office variety, a giant counter spans the width of the rear of the restaurant, and there’s the obligatory television sitting on a table in the southwest corner of the dining room.  But this isn’t to say they aren’t trying.  On my last visit, they had three different items hung on the walls, they had put some decorative window appliqué up, and there was even some fake ivy-like stuff draped from some of the window sills.

The thing is, most Korean restaurants I’ve stepped foot in have been straight-up dives.  I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but I have had friends who have lived in Korea, and they have declared that the country is, simply, “NQR” (not quite right).  And after a few glasses of soju, you don’t really care about the ambiance anyway.  There is, however, the minor detail that Kaya has no liquor license, but that’s just a minor detail, isn’t it?

Ambiance or no, the food at Kaya will seduce you with its magical marriage of textures and flavors.  I know of no other cuisine that presents diners with such deep excursions into crunchy, salty, sweet, bitter, spicy, tart, fresh and warm in every dish.  Kaya’s dolsot bibimbap is a case in point.  Neveryoumind how much fun it is to say (dol-sot bee-bim-bop!), this is one of those penultimate comfort foods that chicken noodle soup can’t even begin to compete with.  For starters, it begins with a bowl that has been heated to a temperature just shy of that of the interior of the sun.  Add rice, so that the rice sizzles and cracks for the duration of the meal, forming a caramelized crust where the rice hits the bowl.  Top the rice with a variety of garnishes such as garlicky wilted spinach, sesame-infused carrots, sweetly barbequed beef, sautéed mushrooms, crunchy bean sprouts, brown fern bracken things and whatever else fits the mood of the day, then cover all that with a sunny-side-up egg.  Then, give the diner a bowl of earthy chili paste to stir in.  Oh, and some kim chee (spiced cabbage) on the side.  Well, some kim chee and maybe some pickled bean sprouts.  And some pickled daikon.  And some spiced cucumbers, too.  OK – we should throw in a few more sides – maybe some spinach or potatoes or sesame leaves.  Whatever is in season, you know?  Which is all to say you get a sizzling, crackling bowl with a million different complementary flavors and textures that would require a solid weekend in the kitchen to reproduce … for a whopping $8.95.

Seriously?

Get it for lunch, and you get a bowl of a rich, peppery egg-drop soup in exchange for all the side dishes.  You can also get a non-hot-pot version, which I understand is what you’re supposed to order in the summer – the lunch version of that runs all of $6.50.

To put this into perspective, the last time I went to Five Guys I got a little bacon cheeseburger, a little fries and no drink.  After tax, that ran me $8.61, and to tell you the truth, it wasn’t that good.  (Heresy, I know.  Sue me.)  So, a buck fifty more elevates you from “boring and mediocre” to “Ohmygod, wow,” which is my sort-of-subtle way of telling you to go to Kaya and have the dolsot bibimbap.  Now.  Granted, I’m a sucker for anything with a fried egg on it, but still … it’s really good.

Korean food isn’t always the most accessible fare in the world, and it can seriously weird out the more pusillanimous diners.  I’ll raise my hand and readily admit that not only have I not tried Kaya’s DaeGoo MuhRi Jim (“deep fried cod fish head stir fried with vegetables in special sauce”), but I do not have any plans to try it in the foreseeable future.  I’m sure it’s lovely, though.  One Korean friend of mine used to bemoan the fact she couldn’t find some essential ingredient to what she referred to as “dirty sock soup,” which apparently has the same aroma as my gym bag.  At a Korean restaurant outside of D.C., I ordered “ox-knee meat,” and got what appeared to be a plate full of white gelatinous-yet-tough (and entirely flavorless) cartilage nuggets.  It doesn’t help that the national side dish, kim chee, was (is?) traditionally made by burying it in the ground until the cabbage fermented.  And as for those stories about everyone’s favorite household pet … well, let’s just say you won’t get any of that at a stateside restaurant.

For all the weird stuff, there are just as many dishes that are tailor-made for American palates.  Behold bulgolgi, a marriage of barbeque and fajitas.  Order this, and you get a sizzling platter piled high with thinly sliced and sweetly marinated beef.  Like all the other dinner dishes, this comes with kimchi and four or five side dishes (plus rice, of course).  This is sort of the burger of the Korean menu – it’s always there.  But, Kaya is either using a higher grade of beef or using some sort of secret slicing or tenderizing technique, because Kaya’s bulgolgi literally melts in your mouth.  When I’ve had this dish at other restaurants, it tends to be tougher and have some amount of inedible gristle mixed in.  Kaya’s, however, is top notch.  If you want to take it up a notch (or five), order the spicy pork bulgolgi which is guaranteed to open your sinuses … and then some.  Kaya also features galbi:  Korea’s insanely addictive barbequed short ribs.

Kaya sells an aptly named “hot and spicy stir fry,” which starts with whatever base item you choose (everything from kim chee to chicken to shrimp to squid and rice cakes).  I ordered it with beef last time, and it didn’t disappoint on the hot front.  It arrived with fresh green beans, onions and a few slices of carrot, but what struck me was that the dish was more than just a fire drill – it had layers of complex earthy flavors and very tender beef.  It also imparted a long, slow burn that left me sweating (actually, I was sweating by the fourth mouthful, but … details).  The crunchy and salty kimchi was a nice foil, even though it has its own sharp, acidic (and spicy) kick to it.

Speaking of lunch, I challenge anyone to find a place in Hampton Roads that can even come close to the kind of deal Kaya offers with its “lunch box.”  For $6.50, you get beef, chicken or pork bulgolgi (or their version of Japanese katsu – breaded and fried chicken or pork), plus three pieces of man doo (a crunchy fried Korean wonton filled with beef and glass noodles), three pieces of gim bab (a sesame-seed garnished sushi roll stuffed with such things as yellow pickled radishes, cucumber, crab stick and tofu), bright green and fresh sauteed spinach, crunchy pickled bean sprouts, kim chee, and your choice of steamed or fried rice.

Seriously.

I know you can find cheaper lunches, but you’re not going to find one of this high of quality with anywhere near the amount of effort put forth by the kitchen.  Or tastes even remotely as good.  If you think of yourself as a chile-head and want a challenge, try the yook geh jang, a wildly hot beef noodle soup that weirdly seems continuously circulate wisps of egg white under its own heat.  I’m just now recovering from the bowl I had a couple months back.

Like I mentioned earlier, kim chee is pretty much the national dish, and every family has their own recipe (or so I’m told).  I love the stuff, but it can really turn some folks off – especially if they see it erupt out of a jar bought at the grocery store.  The flavor notes tend to focus on garlic, heat and sour (from the fermenting process).  Kaya’s is flavorful, somewhat tart and relatively mild in terms of heat.  The typical kim chee is made with cabbage, but it’s common to get it as spiced cucumbers (Kaya’s only have a hint of heat) and happily crunchy radishes.  You’re likely to get at least two varieties when you order off the dinner menu.

My main recommendation for Kaya would be to plus up in the staff department.  The lady who is always the hostess/waitress/cashier/busser is super nice, but I get the sense the place is staffed with only her and someone (emphasis on “one”) in the kitchen.  I say this because when the lunch crowd hits, you can be waiting for quite some time for your food to arrive.  I’ve largely been doing take-out just to avoid the protracted wait.  Things are much speedier in the evenings when patrons are sparse, but table clearing can fall by the wayside, meaning there can be quite a few tables with the dishes from the previous diners still on them.  I know you shouldn’t be going into Korean restaurants expecting the white tablecloth experience, but another employee might go a long way to smoothing out the rough edges.

Grade:  B

Address:  1719 N. King Street, Hampton

Phone:  722-4771

Website:  not a chance

A few Urbanspoon reviewers have found Kaya, and here’s what they think:
Kaya Korean on Urbanspoon

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