Rustling up Korean food in Montana at NaRa in Billings
I can’t think of any more odd place to find a Korean restaurant than Billings, Montana. There isn’t a single Asian grocery store in the entire city of 107,000 people, yet somehow Billings managed to become home to a 16-year-old Japanese-Korean restaurant that serves bona fide Korean dishes along with arguably some of the most creative sushi east of the Rocky Mountains.
I was really craving some 김밥 kimbap (Korean variation on sushi) on the last day of my recent trip to Billings. I didn’t travel to Billings to review their only Korean restaurant. I don’t have a budget for that. Family issues drew me to Billings. But what drew me to NaRa’s was a craving for kimbap.
I walked into Nara’s, approaching the sushi bar on the left side of the restaurant and asked chef Dae Shin if he could make me a special order of kimbap. Since they had bulgogi on the menu and make all sorts of fanciful sushi creations, I thought it would be an easy request. The chef gave me puzzled look — How do you know what kimbap is? — then declined my request.
Difference between kimbap and sushi
Shin was not alone at his station. He was chatting with three men who had arrived at the sushi bar before me. A large screen TV behind the sushi bar was playing a sports channel (with closed captions) and classic rock music such as The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” playing mildly in the background. I didn’t want to disrupt chef Shin’s banter with his other customers with additional questions so I ate quietly and decided I would come back for the dinner service. With a missed flight home rescheduled for the next day, I had the time.
For lunch, instead of kimbap, I ordered the Spicy Tuna and Salmon Roll ($12.75). The ground tuna was marinaded with diced green onion, sesame oil and and spicy red sauce.
The sliced salmon was tender and melted in my mouth and I could taste the green onion, sesame oil and the spicy sauce in every bite of tuna. The roll was the kind of spicy that sneaks up on you.
The 배추 김치 baechu kimchi (common cabbage kimchi with spicy red pepper sauce) is made in house. (it has to be, the nearest Asian grocery store, Little Sugar’s Asian Store, is nearly 50 miles away in a tiny town called Roundup.) I ordered a side of it with my meal, which cost $2.50 for a side. It was spicy, fresh and a little sweet with julienned carrots in the mix. No radish or green onion in there.
A man seated near me ordered 불고기 bulgogi (flank beef sauteed in a sweet-savory marinade, $8.95). I didn’t want to be rude and ask a total stranger what he thought of his meal but he did ask for (and received) an extra bowl of rice to sop up all the bulgogi sauce from his plate. Actions speak louder than words and I believe that can be admitted as evidence that he enjoyed his meal. Maybe I should have asked him about his meal, but between the classic rock of the radio, and the chef’s ongoing conversation with the three men in full throttle, mostly centered over the Ray Rice controversy. I really didn’t want to interrupt. I wanted to eat and savor my spicy tuna in peace.
The lunch menu has a very modest Korean selection. The only Korean items on the menu for lunch were either spicy pork, spicy chicken or bulgogi.
I came back for dinner around 5:30 p.m. And yes, my return was noticed. He remembered my kimbap question and asked how I knew about that dish. When I told him I used to live in Korea and that it is one of my favorite Korean foods, he told me of his trips to Las Vegas and the $2 rolls of kimbap he ate there. Hearing him talk about that makes me really wish he’d put kimbap on NaRa’s menu. As I told him, it’s a good option for those people who don’t want fish that tastes like fish.
The restaurant only had two other patrons when I showed up. I went back to the sushi bar area but I didn’t order sushi this time around. The Korean options on the dinner menu are more varied with 파전 pajeon (Korean savory pancakes), 된장찌개 doenjang jjigae (fermented soybean soup, called “Korean miso soup” on this menu), “kimchi fire rice” and 김치찌개 kimchi jjigae (kimchi soup). The dinner crowd started coming in around 6:15 p.m., keeping the sushi chefs and the Korean chef in the kitchen busy with bulgogi and sushi.
My stomach wanted to try the Korean miso soup, which came with a green ginger salad, rice and small bowl of Japanese miso soup. The Korean miso soup came out at a rolling boil and it wasn’t until it calmed down that I could notice all the ingredients, including thinly sliced beef, zucchini, potato, diced semi-soft tofu, onion and hot green peppers.
Sushi chefs tend to be a bit chatty, which is a good thing for slightly nosy bloggers. NaRa has been serving Korean food all along, since 1996.
“(The restaurant) survived on serving Korean food when most people were unfamiliar with sushi. (In the early years), people would try the California rolls, and that was about it.”
For those who rate the quality of a restaurant by its bathroom, Nara’s bathroom was super clean and very nicely decorated. You could have eaten in there if it wasn’t for the fact that he Dept of Health (and the restaurant staff) would really frown upon that. The only other bathroom I have ever wanted to photograph was Danji in NYC.
No sales tax in Montana so the prices are the real deal.
The restaurant is not an easy find no matter what Foursquare or Apple maps tells you. The maps tell you the restaurant is located on 3 Custer but the building’s entrance faces Division Street and Montana Avenue is right there to add to the confusion. The train tracks are right across the street. I have posted some photos of the neighborhood so you can know you are in the right area.
The restaurant has a 4.5 star rating (out of 5) on TripAdvisor.com which is one of the reasons I decided I wanted to try it out when I came to Billings.