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The Broth Is the Thing 

Dive into fantastic food at San Dong

You need to put down the Independent as soon as you finish this article and go directly to San Dong, purveyor of Chinese and Korean cuisine. The chef there is so fabulous, so talented and so underappreciated by this town (given the lack of patrons on the nights I've visited) that I'm afraid he may leave if we don't band together and starting showing up in droves, in enthusiastic, hungry hordes.

This restaurant deserves droves. Although situated in a strip mall at the corner of Chelton and Academy, once you get inside the front door you could be in a fine Asian restaurant in a much larger city. The atmosphere is serene, even with small children in tow. The lighting is subdued, and the warm tones of the wood tables are welcoming. The waitress/hostess is a certified gem, and any restaurant in town would be lucky to have her. Trust me, if you get stuck wondering what to order, just ask.

One of the main beauties of San Dong is that all the noodles are handmade on the premises, and they roll their own skins for the dumplings. Imagine dumpling filling wrapped in a cloud, and you're getting close. The steamed dumplings (called water dumplings on the menu) are dreamy. The filling of minced pork, spinach, garlic and fresh ginger gives you a clean, clear taste of all of the ingredients, with the single notes of flavor blending in perfect harmony. And if you like your dumplings fried, you'll get the same luscious filling in a crackling, crispy shell without a trace of excess grease.

On our first visit to San Dong, we noticed something called "Cham Bong" under the Special Noodle heading. Curious, I asked what it was. The waitress asked if I could eat very spicy food. I replied that I couldn't, but nodded to my husband and said, "He can." She said it was a very spicy seafood soup with homemade noodles. That sold my husband, so he ordered it. I asked for a recommendation for a not-so-spicy soup (it was a cold night), and the waitress asked if I like udon. I said yes. Did I like seafood? Yes. That was all it took.

Both soups were stellar, chock full of shrimp, tenderized squid and mussels. The Cham Bong is what you order if you haven't been able to find anything spicy enough for your taste. I could say it packs a punch, but that would be understatement. But it wasn't just spicy -- the darn broth was so flavorful with ginger and garlic that I wanted to eat it even though it brought tears to my eyes. My soup was much tamer, but the broth was just as good, rich and slow-cooked and full-bodied. Both soups were full of the aforementioned noodles, which were perfectly cooked, plus sliced onions, green onions, slivered carrots and snow peas just barely cooked so they were still crunchy.

We got an order of chicken lo mein for the little ones, and I was very pleased with the result. The noodles, vegetables and chicken were all cut into pieces just right for little hands to handle, and the sauce was flavorful without being greasy. Our 3-and-a-half-year-old asked the waitress for kim bap (Korean version of California rolls), which weren't on the menu. The waitress checked in the kitchen, and not only did the chef make a small plate of these for my daughter, but they didn't even charge us for them. Any restaurant that goes that far to make my kids happy will get my business for a long time to come.

What to try next? I was so torn. I wanted to try the Deep Fried Beef with Hot and Sour Sauce, or the Sauted Vegetables with Shredded Pork and Glass Noodles. My hubby wanted to try the Kim Chee Chi Gae, which is soup with kim chee (Korean spicy pickled cabbage), pork and vegetables. So, naturally, I ordered Bulgogi, which is a barbecued beef, thinly sliced and marinated in a special sauce with lots of sliced onions. This comes with some of the traditional Korean side dishes, so we got our kim chee fix after all. The beef is just about falling-apart tender, and if I could master this tangy, garlic-infused marinade I would be one happy griller. We also tried the Kung Pao Squid, which my husband declared wondrous. The sauce was pungent and spicy, accented with those long, dried red peppers that are deadly hot if you try to eat them. The stir-fry itself was full of tender squid and a pleasant variety of crisp-tender vegetables, including zucchini, onions, carrots and mushrooms.

We haven't tried everything on the menu. We haven't been back yet for the $4.95 to $5.95 lunch specials. There's Shredded Beef Country Style, Shrimp with Garlic Sauce, Beijing Roast Duck and Spicy Cold Noodles to be sampled. Maybe I'll have the Tak Gu-I next, which is grilled chicken marinated in a spicy sauce, a Korean dish I'm partial to. I just hope I see some of you there.

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