When in Monterey…

I’m from Monterey, California (home of the world-famous — and deservedly so — Monterey Bay Aquarium) which is one of the most beautiful places on earth (the breathtaking landscape was featured in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo), but the problem with the beautiful places on earth are that they are usually turned into tourist traps — everything is outrageously overpriced and cheesy. Same goes with the restaurants. There is no lack of fancy schmancy dining on the peninsula, but like most fancy restaurants, you are paying for the attitude or the view, and not the quality of the food.

If you ever find yourself in Monterey, California, and want a great meal, I would strongly urge you to skip the Fresh Cream, Sardine Factory, Fandango, and Anton & Michel’s (all of which are the kinds of places kids go on prom night) and head to NaRa Korean Retaurant in downtown Monterey (420 Tyler St). My mom and I always eat here whenever I visit her — at least once, and sometimes twice per visit! OK, so it’s not an all-out Korean BBQ place where you grill at your table, but they cover all the basics and they do it well. Bulgoki, Jap Chae, Bibimbop, Sundubu — all solid — complete, of course with all the kimchi and other appetizers.

The most amazing dishes, though, are the two sea bass ones — which, due to recent hikes in sea bass prices, they did not have for the last year or so. But serendipitously, when I was home just a couple weeks ago, they DID have the sea bass! Here is the Grilled Sea Bass:

It’s grilled with this viscous spicy-sweet sauce made from daikon and chilis, served with healthy slices of zucchini and daikon. Totally delectable. We also got the Spicy Sea Bass Soup, which is like a kimchi jige except with luscious chunks of sea bass, and the Japchae, a great standard noodle dish. (I just realized all my photos are blurry so I’m not uploading the others… sux) It’s totally a cozy place that prioritizes food over decor (they put tennis balls on the feet of the chairs to prevent scratches on the lino floor, and there’s a gigantic plasma TV usually on CNN). I don’t think anything on the menu is priced over $20 — this homey place is a favorite among the locals, and is usually packed with language student-soldiers from the Defense Language Institute practicing their Hangul.

So if you’re ever planning a trip down (or up) the coast, here’s a suggested itinerary: hit the Aquarium and work up your appetite for seafood before heading over to Nara. (And then later you may want to relax in the hot springs at Esalen and get a seaside massage!!)

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