If you're tired of modern European cuisine and the never-ending lectures about seasonality, or weary of being served heritage food on curated crockery, head to Ho Rang I for a good ol' dose of unapologetic reality. What you see is what you get; there's no effort to dress it up or give it any spin - just straightforward Korean food that's tasty, uncomplicated and very enjoyable.
Located in Goldhill Centre - the ageing, homely neighbour of the buzzier United Square shopping mall - Ho Rang I (which means "tiger") qualifies as your typical suburban eatery offering friendly-priced lunch sets for the office crowd and a bigger repertoire of familiar favourites for bigger appetites.
It's technically not new - it was previously known as Your Woul, run by a Korean lady named Madam Sul, whose son Edward has since taken over the reins and added a new name, some hipster decor touches and craft beer to the menu.
HO RANG I
165, Thomson Road (Goldhill Centre)
Tel: 6251 0123
Open for lunch and dinner daily: 10.30am to 2.30pm; 5.30pm to 10.30pm.
But it is still fundamentally a no-frills joint with little charm and less ambience, but it's precisely its lack of polish that draws us to Ho Rang I, from the moment we step in and the ajumma (auntie) greets us with "Annyeonghaseyo".
She's not the owner, she just works there - she and her silent but helpful sidekick who slinks through the restaurant, efficiently bringing out your food and lighting your hotpot without prompting. Don't bother asking them for recommendations or how to eat certain dishes. It's clear from their reactions they don't get asked that very often.
If your relationship with Korean food has been crafted by TV dramas and cooking shows, Ho Rang I's menu is like fiction come to life with a comprehensive roll call of classic tongue-twisters such as Tteokpokki (starchy rice cakes), japchae (glass noodles), Naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles), Kimchi Jjige (kimchi and pork stew), bibimbap and Budaejjige (Korean army stew).
It's pretty amazing the kind of variety that can be spun from cuisine that derives its core flavours from kimchi and gochujang chilli paste.
You kick off with the usual array of appetisers or banchan - in this case we get six kinds including kimchi, anchovies, cold fried potatoes and fishcake strips.
We enjoy the Japchae (S$18) - a smallish portion of glass noodles that is slippery, peppery and sweet, with crunch and texture from mushrooms, vegetable stems and black fungus. Eaten with kimchi - a perfect balance of savoury, sweet and tart - it's a flavour bomb.
The Hameul Pajeon (S$22) is a crunchy, crusted, doughy pancake studded with squid and shrimp that is a little stodgy for us, although the crunchy bits and the tender seafood chunks are worth nibbling on. Just dip it sparingly into the overly salty chilli-vinegar dip it comes with.
Gal Bi Sal (S$38) is surprisingly good, grilled, boneless US beef short ribs, cut into bite-size squares and served already grilled with lettuce, sliced green chillis and raw garlic. Sesame oil and homemade gochujang complete the picture.
If you've already imbibed some of the homemade makgeoli (Korean fermented wine), you'll be emboldened to say, "garlic breath be damned!" and pile on the raw garlic, sauce and meat into your lettuce sandwich and be very happy after that.
The house speciality must be the spicy soups, apparently made from a master stock that's been brewing for a good decade or so. You're probably better off ordering any of the moderately priced soups or stews instead of the top-of-the-line Haemul Tang (S$62) which dunks a whole flower crab, scallop on the shell, clams and mussels into a delicately briny broth coloured deep orangey-red from spicy chilli paste.
The seafood isn't particularly great quality, although we can't get enough of the broth, which is even better when ladled over steaming rice. But if it's the seafood that makes the flavour of the broth, by all means splurge.
Just don't bother to try eating the crab claw. When we ask her for a crab cracker, the ajumma pauses for a while, disappears and returns with a giant pair of pliers. We don't know whether to crack the claw with it or look for some screws to tighten.
We're full by the time the Naengmyeong (S$15) arrives, so we can't fully appreciate the cold noodles glistening in a light beef broth that's so cold, it's like a shimmering jelly soup with slices of Korean pear floating in it. The broth could use a little more beefiness and less vinegar. We still have memories of a lovely version we had in Seoul, so perhaps the comparison is unfair.
The very nature of Korean food is such that while it lacks the finesse and variety of Japanese cuisine, it's got a rough, roguish charm that invites you to kick back and take it easy.
The food at Ho Rang I is not exceptional but it's fun and puts you in a good mood. It makes us want to go back and try more things - so that's saying something.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.