Koreatown: Beyond The Lettuce Wrap
I recently published a cookbook all about Korean food [http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0804186138?tag=koreatowncook-20]. This is not your average soft-focus "journey to Asia" kind of cookbook. "Koreatown" is a spicy, funky, umami-packed love affair with the grit and charm of Korean cooking in America. Koreatowns around the country are synonymous with mealtime feasts and late-night chef hangouts, and chef Deuki Hong and I did lots and lots of research, i.e. stuffing our faces with Korean food,
I recently published a cookbook all about Korean food. This is not your average soft-focus "journey to Asia" kind of cookbook. "Koreatown" is a spicy, funky, umami-packed love affair with the grit and charm of Korean cooking in America.
Koreatowns around the country are synonymous with mealtime feasts and late-night chef hangouts, and chef Deuki Hong and I did lots and lots of research, i.e. stuffing our faces with Korean food, while writing the book.
Barbecue is a very big part of Korean cuisine, with hunks of glistening kalbi (beef short rib) and samgyeopsal (uncured pork belly) being placed on hot grills and then wrapped in lettuce and pickled radish discs, while rounds and rounds of soju and light beer is drunk late into the night. Korean barbecue is simply badass, there is no doubt. But it’s not the only game in town. With that in mind, here are 10 of my favorite non-barbecue restaurants.
Seolleongtang is the cloudy soup that many Koreans credit for curing a night of excess — which is why you will find this 24/7 restaurant packed with a spirited post-karaoke crowd in the early morning hours. For some, it’s a love-it-or-leave-it foodstuff. The broth, milky like a watered-down version of Elmer’s glue, is prepared through the painstaking process of boiling ox bones for days and days. You can spot large caldrons of the stuff bubbling in the back of the restaurant. When it arrives at the table it comes warm, not boiling hot like most jjigae, and is bobbing with strips of beef brisket, a handful of rice and somen wheat noodles. The key to appreciating seolleongtang is what you do with it next. Adding two or three scoops of powdery salt is essential, as is sprinkling in freshly ground pepper and a handful of chopped scallions (all available tableside). After the additions mingle for a bit, the broth remains slightly offaly, but with a rush of briny ocean tide that works magic with the tender noodles. It’s something you might just be craving during your next visit to K-Town.
Korean “nachos” are served late into the night at Arang
At first glance, is appears that Arang is the kind of place that you go after a long night of karaoke — the heavy dishes (there is a range of souped-up rice cakes and fried objects) are perfectly made to soak up the drunkenness that had you singing “Freedom 90” in front of strangers a few hours earlier. And true, the second-level pub located above popular barbecue restaurant Kunjip is most crowded late night and on the weekends (it’s open until 6 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). They follow the universal culinary wisdom that melting cheese makes anything taste better, which is proudly stated on the restaurant’s website.
But if you take a seat at one of the banged up wooden tables and look at the menu a little closer, you’ll find a unique sense of an inventive playfulness that is uncommon at most of the traditional, tightly wound restaurants in the neighborhood. The dukbokki (rice cakes) section is a good place to start. There’s a chicken version mixed with a sweet curry, cabbage and yams. The house signature, a monstrous plate that can serve four, has spicy kimchi and pork and is topped with American cheese. Ladies and gentlemen, we have found Korean nachos. There’s a blistering bowl of ramen noodle mixed with bulgogi and something called beer tempura balls (the name belies the fact that this is basically a plate of slightly drier Swedish meatball). Who doesn’t want that at 3 a.m.?
In Seoul it’s commonplace for a bar to serve plates of dried seafood and nuts with frosty pints of Hite. Arang continues the tradition with a plate of dried filefish and squid, sweet and chewy like beef jerky, but kissed with the faint funk of the sea. When dipped in gochujang or a spicy mayo, there’s the sudden notion that David Chang will be serving this soon. Owner Sunny Lim, who operates the restaurant with her mother, has been in the restaurant business since birth and brings a Bushwick cool to the operation (there are whispers of a Brooklyn offshoot in the works). On one visit she happily proclaimed it Mariah Carey night, before “Someday” and “Make It Happen” played without pause. It was only 9 p.m., but the party was already in full swing.
Whole young chicken and Korean ginseng
This modest little 20-seat restaurant located a short walk from the Broadway Long Island Rail Road station was visited weekly by former New York Mets pitcher Jae Weong Seo, who longed for the flavors of his hometown in southwestern Korea. He was most certainly onto something with these visits, because Myung San, run by a mother-daughter team, is an absolute treasure. The quality of the cooking, attention to detail and freshness of the produce (much of it pulled from the family’s garden) is exceptional. But you wouldn’t think that walking into the modest dining room, when you’re hit with a smell that closely resembles a cat shelter. That would be the cheonggukjang jjigae (a fermented bean curd soup with which you are encouraged to begin your meal). It tastes better than it smells, nutty and sharp and thankfully not like “dead body soup,” as it’s sometimes called.
The banchan is very well-appointed and can include items like marinated eggplant, fork-tender boiled potatoes, fried lotus root and kimchi made with sardines. (Our host referred to this as a “special” variety). The vegetable ssam is striking, an overflowing basket of fresh raw veggies — perilla leaves, lettuce, collard greens and carrot tops — in which we wrapped chunks of sautéed pork after slathering the greens with a choice of ssamjang or a homemade miso paste. As we dined during a recent afternoon visit, a woman sat in a corner of the dining room trimming a basket of vegetables for the evening service. Vegetables are a focus here, which is something you won’t find on 32nd Street.
Spicy yukgaejang is another specialty — shredded beef and scallions mixed with bracken, perilla seeds, garlic, sesame oil and other items and cooked for hours and hours. It’s made with a scrambled egg, which adds a nice and creamy dimension. The gamjatang — presented in a large bowl that easily serves six — is some of the best you will ever find. The pepper broth bobbing with boiled potatoes is rich and fiery, boosted by pieces of dried lettuce. The fall-off-the-bone pork back is sweet and truly a transporting foodstuff. Which is why it makes sense that our friend the professional baseball player made a weekly pilgrimage to this place. He’s currently back playing in Korea, likely with a bowl of cheonggukjang jjigae at his disposal. We’re not so lucky here in New York City. Unless, of course, we take a short ride on the train.
The scene outside Hangawi in Manhattan.
Hangawi is more of an oasis than a vegetarian restaurant, hidden behind heavy wooden doors and surrounded by nondescript office buildings at the far eastern end of the neon-light stretch of 32nd St. in K-Town. Once inside, shoes are removed and guests are led through a dim dining room to padded seats at low tables. Zen-like music plays and the stress of daily hustle bustle recedes a bit as the knowledgeable staff, dressed in silken robes, begins to tell you a little bit about the Korean “temple” cuisine — the meatless art of balancing um and yang. And this is quite a delicious, flavorful and inventive art of balance that is nothing like any of the nearby barbecue specialists.
Start with the appetizer section of the menu featuring a range of pajeon (pancakes) and dumplings. A pancake of tofu and minced oyster mushrooms is wrapped in a sesame leaf. A fritter combination features golden-fried packages of sweet potato, taro, beet and kabocha. Note that Hangawi is vegetarian, not vegan, as is often confused. A sister restaurant, Franchia, is for the vegans. Also, a minimum order of $18 is required after 5 p.m., which shouldn’t be too difficult to meet.
The spicy baby dumplings, artfully placed atop banana leafs, are soft and pasta-like wrappers securing a vegetable and nut filling. The crispy sweet and sour mushroom is also a must-order — expertly fried and bathed in a decadent sauce, it’s the closest dish you’ll find to Korean fried chicken without the cluck. Moving to the rice dishes, there are a number of unique twists including an avocado stone bowl and a sticky rice wrapped in bamboo served with dates, gingko nuts and ginger.
The ssam bab strikes at the heart of the cooking philosophy at Hangawi. The presentation is beautiful — a platter of julienned daikon radish, marinated and sautéed mushrooms, Asian pear slices and bean sprouts are placed across an earthenware platter, to be wrapped in either lettuce or sesame leaves and smeared with ssamjang (the iconic bean paste sauce that accompanies all Korean barbecue). The meatless play on the Korean grilled meat tradition is great fun. Your favorite vegetarian friend will thank you for the dinner invite.
Banchan is the small plates ceremony served at most Korean restaurants.
There’s a faded letter tacked to the wall of Han Bat, written in Korean for all of the Korean-speaking world to see. “You won’t find better cooking in Korea,” jokes the note’s scribe. But it’s a true testament to the authentic, country-style cooking you will find at a restaurant tucked between the better-known Cho Dang Gol and Madangsui. Though it’s open 24/7, serving a breakfast menu of kimchi jjigae and seolleongtang (a milky ox bone soup seasoned with onions and salt), you’ll find it mostly crowded at night — a mix of Koreans and in-the-know non-Koreans. Tourists came with bags, loading up on Hite and gamjatang (a peppery pork neck and potato soup) before their late-night flights across the ocean. Some barbecue is available here, though it plays second-fiddle to a range of home-style dishes that are executed with the exacting hand of a Korean grandmother.
Soondae is one such dish, a mild blood sausage consisting mostly of dangmyeon noodles and stuffed into a casing with barley and other bits that are best left unsaid. The dish can be found around town, but nobody does it better than Han Bat. It arrives in a massive platter, hot and moist and sliced like kielbasa. The tradition is to dip it in a mixture of salt and spice, between sips of OB. (A lightweight Korean beer is a pairing essential.) Kong biji is another such dish. Unlike the commonly found soondubu (chunky pieces of silky tofu floating in a fiery broth), biji is tofu blended to a porridge-like consistency. It’s nutty and served with our without chunks of pork sausage.
Go dung uh gui (grilled, salty mackerel) is available in full and half orders and served fishy in just the right way and nicely crisped out of the broiler. It’s great to share as a group plate. The same goes for the fried mandoo (dumplings). They come eight to an order and arrive stuffed with well-seasoned pork, which comes alive when dipped into a soy-vinegar sauce.
Banchan, the ceremonial small plates that arrive before the meal, is also rustic and slightly out of the ordinary: you’ll find marinated squash, dried seaweed, cold-poached bean sprouts, seaweed, radish and cabbage kimchi. There’s also formidable pajeon (fried pancakes mixed with scallions, kimchi and various seafood), stone-bowl bibimbap and jaeyuk bokum (sautéed pork). But ask the friendly staff for a suggestion. Maybe jokbal (pigs feet) will tickle your fancy? It might just be better here than in Korea.
Hands down the most upscale Korean restaurant in the Northeast, if not the entire United States, an evening at Jungsik compares with an evening at Eleven Madison Park — where captain-led service and deft wine pairings match the expectations of a $155, 10-course tasting menu. The kitchen is run by chef-owner Jung Sik Dang, a Bouley veteran who also served time in the Korean army. (As legend goes, his cooking was so savvy that he eventually become the personal chef to his commanding officer.) He would later open the well-regarded Jung Sik Dang in Seoul, a restaurant that pioneered a brand of “new Korean” cooking that bridged the powerful flavors of the Korean kitchen (pickling, bubbling, fiery sauces and raw garlic) with a more tempered European sensibility. In the Jungsik worldview bachan, the ceremonial small plates that land before a barbecue feast, becomes highly composed, intensely flavorful amuse bouche.
In his austere Tribeca dining room — a space that formerly housed the legendary Chanterelle — four of these courses are delivered including house made tofu with eggplant, kimchi naengmyeon (made with chilled soba noodles) and yuba skin energized with vinegar. There’s a whimsical play on two popular dishes, bulgogi sliders and Korean fried chicken, with both appearing miniature and on the end of a toothpick.
As the restaurant’s young sommelier Kyungmoon Kim goes over his lengthy (and expensive) list of crisp Alsatian whites and baller Burgundy (there are over 100 of those alone), the courses will start to progress from light to extraordinary (more on that later).
There’s a smoked clam chowder with crispy fingerlings and red snapper with sujebi (hand-torn noodles) and parsley in a clam stock. If you decided to order from the a la carte menu, it’s recommended that you pick between 3-4 courses from the various categories (appetizer, rice/noodle, seafood, meat). There’s a duck with gochujang-forward kimchi and octopus with “ssamjang aioli” — dishes rooted in more classic Korean flavors — as well as some bonafide left-field dishes like smoked pork jowl with pickled ramps and a lobster with beurre-blanc and raspberries. With those you have to squint to see that there is a Korean in the kitchen there.
In the end we suggest going with the tasting, which costs a little more scratch, but will give the chef your full attention, which he deserves. The New York Timesagrees, awarding the restaurant with two stars in 2012 in a review by critic Pete Wells that praises the course-by-course experience.
It’s near the end of this tour de force tasting when you will be served the namesake steak, where cubes of well marbled Wagyu short ribs will arrive in a kimchi and sesame oil broth. It’s a wonderful play on kimchi jjigae confirming that, yes, a Korean is in the kitchen at Jungsik. And he’s doing some pretty extraordinary things.
Life does not suck for Hooni Kim, a Korean-American chef who grew up in New York and cooked at Masa and Daniel before opening his insanely popular 36-seat Korean tapas restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. On any given night (they operate during six of them and open promptly at 5:15 p.m.), the crowds line up for a seat at the bar (a cozy, well-manned space in the front) or for a handful of tightly packed tables in the back. We’re talking Torrisian and Momofukian crowds. But, for what?
There are, of course, Kim’s bulgogi sliders, adored by The New York Times, New York magazine, the tabloids and any other blog, website, newsletter, pamphlet or listserv on the bulgogi slider beat. He calls it “bulgogi filet mignon” dressed with scallions, cucumber kimchi and a smear of Sriracha mayo coating buttery buns that has the squish similar of a potato roll. And here’s a little secret: The pork belly one is even better, wonderfully porcine and seasoned with an ample amount of gochujang — the iconic red pepper paste made from fermented soybeans. The knife work with the julienned cucumbers that line this sandwich tips to a cook who’s spent some serious time in the kitchen chez Boulud.
But let us take the paper bag away from our mouths for a moment and look at some of the other dishes that have us coming back month after month. There’s flash fried tofu that closely resembled marshmallows or “healthy mozzarella sticks” as the friendly bartender once told us. There’s a trio of kimchi, which Kim breaks custom by charging for. It’s worth the six bucks and arrives as cabbage, zucchini and pickled radish that resembled a half-sour from the Jewish deli. There’s poached sablefish, oily in the best possible sense, and served with spicy daikon radish. Pairing well with beer is a play on the now-ubiquitous Korean fried chicken wing. Kim glazes them with honey, garlic, and a four chili spice rub.
From the playful bathroom décor (Hawaiian tribal masks) to the lines of paella spoons to the danji jars sitting above the polished wooden bar, the interior design is as good as it gets as Korean restaurants go. The service also shines. A friendly food runner will suggest a dish with a smile. A skilled bartender refills your water glass 10 times between pouring glasses of soju sangria and mixing Asian-inspired cocktails with things like rye whisky, cinnamon, ginger and jujube syrup.
And when the waits extend north of an hour, the patient GM will take down your number and call you when your spot is available. The neighborhood has plenty of bars, so you’ll have no troubles posting up somewhere while waiting for the call. But you’re going to have to wait for that slider.
Gabi Porter for Food Republic except for
Gahm Mi Oak: missbuttercup.com
Hangawi dish: hangawirestaurant.com
Han Bat: @nydiningguide
Danji interior: meltingbutter.com
Danji japchae: Daniel Krieger for NYTimes
banchan infographic: Food Republic
Adapted from this Food Republic piece I wrote in April 2013.