korean


anchovy kal gook soo

anchovy kal gook soo

Mee Hoon Kway is to me as the madeleine is to Proust, but after so many years, I’ve given up searching for a bowl of passable mee hoon kway in this country. It is impossible to find that many restaurants that serve the rustic hand-made noodles in a rich and salty pork/anchovy based broth, much less tasty versions complete with all the requisite toppings of fragrant fried onions and crispy dried anchovies. However, with  Kal Gook Soo, I might have found mee hoon kway’s Korean soul sister.

For a hearty bowl of kal gook soo in the city, one turns to the newly opened Arirang, a specialist in handmade noodles, perched on the 3rd floor of a nondescript building on 32nd street. It was hidden well and took me awhile to find my way up the stairs where I met Goh Siew for our Sunday lunch.

Being our first visit, we both picked noodles, although Arirang’s menu does diversify somewhat beyond the obligatory bowl of kal gook soo, but is in no way as expansive as the regular Ktown restaurant. The noodles come 2 ways, either hand-cut into long, uniform strands, or hand torn into irregular flat pieces (su jea bee) just like my beloved mee hoon kway.  Order both in the same bowl to figure out which one you love best. 5 types of broth are available, chicken, anchovy,  seafood, vegetable and kimchi. Goh Siew picked the chicken broth, and the steaming bowl of soup was a milk white broth that thickened as the noodles soaked, and had a very pure taste of poultry. I decided to challenge my childhood tastebuds and ordered the anchovy based soup, anchovy soup being one that I seriously detested growing up, especially when it came with gummy mee sua and overboiled sweet potato leaves. Thankfully, my tastebuds have grown up, and I now can appreciate the faint seafood flavor and umami of the anchovies. Thankfully too, for the absence of the little fish. In the giant bowl of soup laid a neverending supply of noodles, its texture slightly thicker but 90% like mee hoon kway, a little chewy but mostly yielding to the bite. It was such a delight.

Arirang

32 W 32nd St (3rd Floor)

http://www.chow.com/photos/278243

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A boiling cauldron of sundubu
A boiling cauldron of sundubu

Cold, frigid winter, meet your arch nemesis, the bubbling hot casserole of Korean tofu stew, the formidable sundoobu. At BCD Tofu house in Ktown, one can order sundubu multiple ways, with pork, beef, the broth kimchied and dumplinged. I choose the unconventionally sludgey curry tofu because I knew no one else would, and I got a pot of soft beancurd cubes bubbling away in a gooey brown sauce that is thinner than the regular japanese curry, but not by much. It is tasty, but next time I am opting for the regular broth, the blood red witches’ brew that promises burnt tongues and numbing heat. The menu suggests that no MSG has been added and despite it, the soup is meaty and flavorful, the pork and beef versions superior to the seafood, because the shellfish tasted frozen.

Like other Korean restaurants, the meal came with a full suite of panchan, Korean side dishes. The most unusual side dish must be the whole fried pollock, one each for everyone that orders sundubu. A little salty on its own, it was tasty mixed with rice. We could not resist the siren call of fried dough, and both times I’ve visited in as many weeks, we ordered the seafood pancake, BCD’s a worthy version that was crisp, not greasy, and came with good filling-dough ratio.

Apparently I am not the only one with hot tofu stew in mind these days, and last Friday, the restaurant was a madhouse. While the decor is more modern than its neighbors, the service was the same, i.e. harried and brusque. Still, when in need of a spicy antidote to winter blues, this isn’t a bad place to be.

BCD Tofu House

 17 W32nd St

www.bcdtofu.com

Thanks to a couple of influential reviews, KFC now stands for Korean Fried Chicken in the city. New York Times featured the dish in a recent review, calling the chicken
moist with “crackling crisp skin”. While Paul was in town, Gerrie and I visited Forte Baden Baden, a pub in Ktown and purveyor of the said dish to test these claims.
The golden bird, first roasted to seal in the juices and then deep fried came in a huge platter for $19.95, looking extremely delectable. It was accompanied by thick fries and a bowl of sweet and munchable pickled radish. A pair of squirt bottles housed ketchup and chilli sauce for people looking for more flavor. We bit into the chicken, waiting to
crown the Koreans masters of the deep fat fryer. The meat was juicy while the batter free skin was paper crisp. But there was no revelatory moment. In fact, we three had been eating chicken fried in this or in a very similar way all our lives. Any decent Cantonese restaurant would feature this dish, sometimes with garlic, sometimes without. Congee Village down in Chinatown does it well, as do Ping’s with its mini quail version.
Aside from the mild disappointment experienced from eating something familiar (we had expected somewhat unrealistically in hindsight, that Korean chicken would have a more bombastic taste), we enjoyed ourselves immensely in the darkened room eating, besides the chicken a fiery dish of stir-fried octopus and vegetables, crimson from chili paste resting atop a bed of udon. In the darkened room fashioned like any other pub in the city, we washed the gut-sticking food down with beer, giggled at the servers’ faux military garb and ate heartily. While the chicken at Baden Baden does not displace chicken at KFC in our mental ranking of best chicken tasted (there is something disturbingly comforting at eating commercially fried chicken from a tub), we enjoyed the alternative pub experience at Baden Baden and will recommend it to anyone looking for something more substantial than fries and onion rings to go with their beer.

Restaurant Forte Baden Baden
28 West 32nd St (5th and 6th Aves)
(212) 714-2266

When the weather is below freezing, and wind chill just makes it worse, a crunchy, cold salad can be a very unappetizing meal. Instead, what I crave for lunch on those winter days is a steaming bowl of soup to ward away the chills. And when I happen to be in the vicinity of Ktown, I visit Gahm Mi Oak for a bowl of seolleong tang.

Gahm Mi Oak is a nondescript looking place on the ktown strip, but its menu distinguishes itself from the other 20 or so restaurants packed on the same block. Instead of the usual gamut of menu items, Gahm Mi Oak’s feature a scant dozen or so dishes and a brief survey of the diners will reveal that hardly anything else is ordered besides the ubiquitous bowl of sul long tang. And instead of an array of banchan as is customary at most Korean restaurants, the only side dish served here is a generous plate of homemade radish and cabbage kimchi retrieved straight from its pickling pot. But I am not complaining, as the kimchi is one of the best served in the city, tart yet sweet at the same time, and not so unpickled that the radish tastes raw.

And now the seolleong tang. Admittedly, the white, almost opaque ox-bone broth is not for flavor junkies, but the broth is boiled for such length that it assumes a rich beefiness that does not require a heavy handed approach on spices. All it needs is a sprinkling of salt and some chopped scallions to enhance the taste. And the excellent radish kimchi is a great accompaniment for the soup. Because of the bone marrow that inadvertently seeps into the soup, the broth achieves a thick consistency that does not require additional fortification from milk (unlike fish head noodles in Singapore, where vendors pour cans of evaporated milk to achieve the white milky goodness) And unlike the fuzhou noodle soup made with pork bones, grease is minimal here. Both rice and noodles reside in the broth, and some thin slices of brisket floating on top of the broth complete the soothing dish. So simple, with such humble origins, but so satisfying. I eagerly drink up, slurp the noodles and finish up my rice, and I allow myself the luxury to recede into a warm fuzzy haze of food coma. Finally, with the next bowl of seolleong tang planned, I bundle up, make my exit and face the bitter cold.
Gahm Mi Oak
43 W32 St (Bet 5th & 6th Ave)

I remember the day korean barbeque entered my life. It was a cold fall night in 2001, my college friends and I had a car at our disposal, for some reason I can no longer remember, and someone suggested we make the northward trek to the part of Chicago that housed many good Korean restaurants for something different. We complied, piled on the car and reached this standalone 24 hour shack that was sitting squarely across from a funeral home. We walked into the restaurant, bundled up in our woolen sweaters, for it was cold, and entered into a haze of smoke, smells and general cacophony. We left sated from the copious amounts of chewy kalbi, numerous small plates of banchan and with the garlic and soy scent stuck to our sweaters for the next week. From that moment on, my was I hooked and thank God K-town in New York is only 15 blocks away from home.
It wasn’t that difficult for me to like Korean food. I had grown up tasting soy sauce, dried shrimp, hot peppers and the other common Asian condiments that made up a Chinese or Korean meal. But many of my friends that went with me to Don’s Bogam did not grow up eating those foods and Korean bbq was a novel thing. Luckily, barbeque is not a foreign concept and people jumped on the opportunity to watch their own food cook.
Don’s Bogam, with its honeycombed window design and sleek white bar is very modern, and familiar to the new Korean diner. Kneeling during dinnertime can be an excruciating exercise, especially for those not used to it, so we sigh a breathe of relief upon finding out that the squat tables in the dining room were really faux squat tables with big holes beneath to allow diners to rest their feet in. Also absent on its walls were slips of writings in hangul that are common fixtures in restaurants catering to the native eater. This calms the non-Koreans diners, who may feel alienated otherwise, obsessing about potentially missing out on a particularly tasty special or that the paper was in fact a health warning that was concealed to them. Even more calming is the presence of Korean friends in the midst, who took charge of the ordering situation so all we needed to do was smile at the servers, raise our hands when we needed more OB beer (uncannily like a Bud in terms of bottle design), lift our chopsticks and dig in.
Our group of 10 ate heartily on surprisingly fresh and sweet seafood lightly grilled on the table, and different cuts of beef, both marinated and sauce-free. Being a flavor freak, I preferred the heavily sauced ones (yes I ought to be shot). Still, the chicken bbq at Shilla beat the beef cuts at Don’s Bogam by a long shot. We also had an order of bulgogi, thinly sliced beef cooked with vegetables, a lot of onions and garlic and a sweet sauce. The only disappointment for me was the jap chae, which like most restaurant cooked jap chae was a sweet sloppy mess. The restaurant served a variety of banchan, and it was interesting inducting new eaters into the delights of fish cake (or fish sausage as we like to call it), multiple types of kimchi and the spicy dried shrimp that unsurprisingly made some flinch. Oh well, a few more meals and we’ll have them down the tiny shrimp like the rest of us.
We rolled out of the restaurant reeking of smoke and garlic despite ominous warnings not to wear wool. But what can’t a little dry cleaning do?

Don’s Bogam
17 E 32rd St (bet Madison & 5th Ave)

For better or for worse, koreanfever has swept into the rest of Asia since the earlier part of the century and remains extremely strong. I unabashedly proclaim myself a k-drama fan and devour every single dvd set I can get my hands on, happily forgoing sleep and human interaction for the sake of finishing up an episode or five. The most memorable one I’ve seen so far, and the one that has ruoying wasting away on the couch watching 15 hours non-stop has been Dae Jang Geum. The best part about the show for me, besides the exhibition of office politics in its finest and the epic love story that spans 65 episodes, must be the food. platters and platters of food, from the identifiable congee and bibimbap to the exotic, all fit for a king on celluloid…
so from the land of

May i present to you (cue Dae Jang Geum theme song) dinner, K-style! (aka commoner style, we obviously do not live on the emperor’s budget and don’t have the great fortune of eating special golden roosters and bear paws and what not…

Yanru’s friends are on their grand graduation trip, are spending some time in new york, and would like to try food not easily found in Singapore. It is difficult to find a good korean restaurant in Singapore even though there are more popping out now, with the recent interest in everything that starts with a K. The couple I’ve been to when I was home left me with a bad taste in my mouth and were too expensive given what they had served up. Y’s friends were therefore game to have dinner in manhattan’s ktown, and so we made plans to meet up at Kunjip at 7pm.

I love korean food because I’m a big fan of spicy stews, and kunjip does a great job with its spicy chigaes. Well besides being spicy, I guess Korean food can be characterized as a little on the sweet side, and very vege-centric, although we do identify Korean food with BBQ. Kunjip, with its huge menu spanning from vegetarian bibimbaps to spam casserole is a great place to try the full spectrum of basic Korean food. Lastly, walk past kunjip at dinnertime on any day, and you will see a line. There was a line at 6:45 when I got there, and a even longer one at 9 pm, when we left… What instills more confidence than seeing a crowd outside your restaurant of choice? Well, a crowd of native diners, and there were plenty of Koreans waiting in line with us as well, so we were in good hands.

A korean meal always starts off with some side dishes (ban chan), and if you’re not too careful, you end up snacking too much and becoming full even before your entree gets here. Kunjip serves up a mean bubbly pot of steamed egg custard, somewhat akin to chawanmushi but without the peripherals and not quite as smooth. Still it’s silky and goes down well with kimchi and other preserved veges. The secret must be the hotpot in which it is cooked and served in. Be careful not to be overzealous and burn your tongue while you’re at it (which I of course did)

Other stuff we ate:

Seafood pa jeon, the pancake , while a little soggy in the middle, was well-received, and was our only in-your-face deep fried and therefore unhealthy dish.

Sundubu chigae and deon jang chigae: Spicy tofu and spicy miso stews, Sundubu is my all-time favorite korean dish. I also love the fact that tofu = dubu and ma po tofu = mabodubu in korean =)

Nakji Bokum (fried squid in red sauce).. yum yum yum yum yum. The udon that comes with it sops up the go chu jang sauce so well…

A large saba simply broiled with salt… very healthy and tasty but not very photogenic. I think the saba dish was not as popular that night because it was the most tasteless dish, not in a bad way, but because everything else was heavily flavored. It might also be the fact that its just fish and not some unidentifiable korean dish, which would have been more fun to try =)

Last but not least, the piece de resistance, a spicy variation of Gal Bi Jim… Korean beef stew, extra spicy, quite sweet with meat that falls of the bones literally and melts in your mouth. Yanru was not feeling well that day and still couldn’t stop eating it. I think its a keeper. Yes there’s oil glistening in the photo, but what’s a good dish without some healthful beef fats?? And spot the carrots? how’s that for a well-balanced meal =)

Since 2004, when I fortuitiously crashed some friends’ dinner gathering at Kunjip, I’ve faithfully returned more than a dozen times, and its been great so far. I’ve recommended this place to so many people and my roommates both love it too.

So the wait is a little long and service can be brusque, and when they set the food in front of you you feel compelled to scarf everything down in 15 minutes to allow other people still in line to have their turn at ordering, but for some culture and a great meal at under $20 in ktown, where the bakery half a block away is charging $6 for tea, its still my favorite midtown pick!

Kunjip

9 W 32rd St (between 5th and 6th Ave)