Finding California wine country's hottest new 한식 hanshik (Korean food) can be as challengingly fun as discovering next pinot noir wine sensation, but it's equally well worth the effort.
Dick Blomster's Korean Diner, formerly known as Hi Five Korean/American Diner, began pleasantly piquing the palates of locals and visitors to the Russian River Valley winegrape-growing region of western Sonoma County an hour north of San Francisco late last year.
You'll find the diner on Main Street of the riverside community of Guerneville. Yet you won't spot a large neon "Blomster's Korean" sign. That's because this Korean hot spot is a popup restaurant in Pat's Diner, a fixture of downtown Guerneville since 1945. And it shows in the decor of the 70-seat diner, which shares space with the bar next door.
The name change is only a a month old, but the birth of Blomster's came in December 2012. According to a waiter who served us at the counter, the owner plans to purchase the building. That's a sign of success and future job security.
The owner, David Blomster, and chef Eugene Birdsall are alumni of Boon Eat + Drink, which is located next door to the current restaurant. Chef Birdsall was blessed with a Korean mama who taught him how to make traditional Korean cuisine.
The best description of Blomster and Birdsall's take on Korean cuisine is fusion diner food. It's American diner food with Korean ingenuity.
The menu was a bit confusing for Hubby and I to navigate. We couldn't tell for a while whether many of the items were separate or part of a combo.
I normally don't buy appetizers at a restaurant, because the main course usually is more than enough. Yet this appetizer menu was intriguing enough to warrant ordering more than one.
Hubby really wanted to try "Hand-cut Seoul Fries" ($5). The homestyle fries were smothered with minced garlic and topped with toasted Korean chilies, green onions, thin strips of roasted seaweed, and black and white sesame seeds.
Accompanying the basket of fries was a small dish of kimchi-topped aoli for dipping. As someone who loves to dip French fries in mayo, this aoli was a fun kick in the pants.
The minced garlic on the fries had been massaged with 고추가루 gochugaru (spicy red pepper powder), doubling the lip-tingling fire. I liked the savory saltiness brought by the the seaweed rather than just salt.
Shortly after we put in the order for the Seoul Fries, the entire restaurant smelled like garlic. I wouldn't be surprised if our clothes smelled of garlic when we walked out. Our breath certainly did and the diet coke and water I drank with my meal did not put a dent in that breath.
Korean pickling is something I've come to love in the past decade and a half, but traditional Euro-American cucumber pickles are my comfort food of yesteryear. So I really wanted to try "Fried Sonoma Brinery Pickles with Sausalito Springs watercress" ($5). The batter was delicate and crisp, and the pickle slices were not soggy or greasy.
With more kimchi aoli for dipping, this was not a low-calorie start to our meal.
For the main course, I ordered "LA Kalbi Mac & cheese" ($10). Instead of the typical yellow cheddar macaroni sauce — or otherworldly neon orange-yellow of box-based preparations — this dish topped the hollow pasta elbows with with white cheese sauce.
Topping the noodles were Los Angeles-style 갈비 kalbi (barbecued beef ribs), generous garnish of fresh 고수 gosu (cilantro or coriander), sliced green onion, buttered toast. The onion and cilantro thankfully provided extra character to what can be a bland noodle dish.
The kalbi was grilled — with the smokey char marks to prove it — yet the meat was still tender and succulent, while still being cooked completely. A hint of fruitiness, particularly cherry, in the marinade makes me think it contained Dr. Pepper or a similar soft drink. That certainly would match the diner theme of the decor and the menu.
Hubby ordered Blomster's–Hi Five's signature dish, "KFC (Korean Fried Chicken/Crack)" ($15). The teriyaki-style barbecue sauce on the crisp-breaded leg and wing was thankfully more honey-like in flavor and texture, rather than overly sweet.
Accompanying the chicken was a soy, ginger and vanilla coleslaw, garnished with sliced radish.
Dick Blomster's Korean Diner16236 Main St., Guerneville, Calif.
Hours: Sunday–Thursday, 5–10 p.m., Friday–Saturday, 5–11 p.m.