When people who have moved away get sentimental about Baltimore, they get especially worked up about Nam Kang.
This is the oldest of the several Korean restaurants in the Charles North neighborhood, the one with its entrance down a flight of exterior stairs. Nam Kang is open 17 hours a day, seven days a week, but many of its fans formed lasting attachments to it in the very small hours of the morning, after a night on the town. People will tell you that the food Nam Kang serves, especially things like spicy seafood stews, barbecued meats, and seafood pancakes, is restorative. People associate Nam Kang with fights and with falling in love, and, very frequently, with running into their exes, on purpose or not.
The below-ground setting, along with the dilatory service, naturally adds to Nam Kang's mystique - it had the feeling of a secret club. For a long time, it did feel as if Nam Kang could have used a good scrubbing, and it got one a few years back, just after the smoking ban went into effect. It's nicer now, but it's still plain and still cozy. All of these associations lead people to make another one: that Nam Kang is bargain dining. It depends on what you consider a bargain, but Nam Kang is capable of giving you complete satisfaction just as it's emptying your wallet. In fairness, though, the prices have only gone up a dollar or two per item since a 2006 review, and you can still get a good deal here at lunch.
Somehow, things just start to add up. I don't ever sit down for a meal here and not get a savory Korean-style pancake, which comes in three versions - one with green peppers, one with shrimp, and one with shrimp and squid. Take the middle way here, I think. The version with squid doesn't reliably hold itself together, and the squid is not consistently tender. If there's not an extensive list of appetizers at Nam Kang - although the fried dumplings are terrific - it's because most diners order an entr?e that qualifies them for the banchan, those extra little communal dishes of tasty nibbles - various kimchi, steamed or saut?ed vegetables, and, sometimes, stir-fried seafood and meat. The selection varies, from night to night, and perhaps from table to table.
Inevitably, someone wants a stew. The variations here include ingredients like kimchi, monkfish, tripe, short ribs and even ox. Some broths are spicy, sometimes clear noodles are added to them, and all of them steam up your eyeglasses. The versions with seafood are satisfying, and with time become as familiar as a bouillabaisse. Almost always, you will spoon up something you can't quite place. Bulgogi is another common addition to the Nam Kang table, but galbi, another barbecue item that uses marinated short ribs instead of sirloin, costs just $2 more but gives something like double the pleasure in taste and tenderness.
Listed under "special dishes" are entrees featuring deep-fried beef, chicken and pork, along with saut?ed and stir-fried dishes with squid and octopus, served with noodles. The spicy sauce coating the octopus delivers wonderful flavor while covering up a little of its toughness.
Nam Kang also features a sushi bar, casseroles for two; rice-based dishes, served in an out of stone pots; and old noodles dishes, both Korean and Japanese styles. Some of the other restaurants in the neighborhood have made their marks with tabletop barbecuing, and Nam Kang has responded with a new room upstairs just for barbecuing. I'm not sure I'm tempted by it - it feels a little cut off from the action downstairs.
The neighborhood's other Korean restaurants have their partisans, and there are arguably more authentic dishes being served a short ride away, in and around Catonsville's H Mart. But people will always keep coming back to Nam Kang.
On the menu
* Fried beef dumplings - $6.95
* Korean pancake with shrimp - $13.95
* Galbi - $19.95
* Stir fried octopus in spicy sauce - $15.95
* Codfish and clam stew - $12.95
Nam Kang Restaurant
Where:: 2126 Maryland Ave.
Contact: : 410-685-6237
Open: : 11 a.m.-4 a.m. daily
Appetizers: : $5.95-$13.95
Entrees: : $9.95-$21.95
Food: : ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
Service: : ** ( 2 STARS)
Atmosphere: : ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]