You hardly ever hear anyone say, "Honey, I feel like Korean food tonight!" Ask most people what they know about Korean, and you're likely to get a blank stare, or, at best, "Kimchi, right?" Well, yes, kimchi, a spicy pickled cabbage dish, is part of nearly every Korean meal, but there's more to the cuisine a lot more. My guess is, Korean food desperately needs a new PR agent.
And that's a shame, because if you like bold, spicy flavors, Korean food is for you. It's a full-scale, no-holds-barred assault on your taste buds. Lots and lots of garlic, and chilies too, with accents of salt and sweet, and mixtures of tender and crunchy definitely not a food for the timid.
But beginners might consider starting at Nam Gang, a comfortable restaurant filled largely with Korean families eating big meals at long wooden tables. The shy, friendly waitresses go out of their way to make Westerners feel at home. Round up a bunch of like-minded friends, appoint one person to be in charge of the charcoal grill built into every table, and make an evening out of it.
Keep in mind that though the menu lists soups and appetizers, there are no "courses"; in a Korean restaurant, everything is served more or less at once. Still, some of the dishes seem an awful lot like appetizers, and there's nothing to stop you from eating those first. One such "safe" beginning is gun man doo, otherwise known as panfried dumplings (B1 on the menu, $4.95). These are good, with a coarse filling and delicate skin; drizzle them with the jalapeño-laden chili sauce on every table, and they're even better. The same sauce is great on the nam gan haemul pajun, a large pancake filled with chopped seafood and scallions (G1, $11.95). Cut into wedges like a pizza, it's large enough to serve four to six people, but it's so good that I'd order it even if I were eating alone.
Yook gae jang (A4, $2.95 for a bowl big enough for two) doesn't need the hot sauce. The menu describes the dish as "shredded beef, scallion, Chinese noodles with Hot Spicy Broth." In point of fact, there wasn't a Chinese noodle (or any other kind) in the beef broth, which was full of shredded beef, scallions and other veggies. But despite all those nifty things, the broth claimed center stage. "Hot Spicy" doesn't begin to describe its glories: in fact, it's bright red practically glowing from ground red chilies. Hot? Yes, powerfully, but not a tongue-burning hot. The heat comes on slowly and goes far deeper than your mouth, but miraculously, it doesn't mask the other flavors. It's an amazing bowl of soup. (And, I imagine, strong enough to cure cold, flu, bubonic plague)
A large portion of the menu is devoted to various meats, marinated and ready to be cooked on the grill that commands the center of your table. Many of the offerings are nonthreatening cuts of beef and pork, but there's also exotic stuff such as squid and tongue. Dae ji bulgolgi (D9, $11.95), thin slices of pork, cooks quickly on the grill, and the spicy sauce nicely complements the pork's sweetness. I would, however, give the edge to sang kal by, the short ribs with "chef's special sauce" (B1, $14.95): Thicker slabs of meat are cut off the bone and marinated in a sauce with a perfect balance of salt, sweet and spice. The ribs cook a bit more slowly than the sliced pork, allowing a nice crust to form while the insides remain juicy. As a nice bonus, the rib bones are provided to be grilled as well; just enough meat still clings to them to make a wonderful nibble. All of the barbecue dishes are served with romaine lettuce and a sweet and spicy bean paste. You put a couple of slices of meat on the lettuce leaf, smear on some sauce and roll it all up: a Korean burrito.
It's not just the grilled dishes that require some assembly. Bibib bap (J5, $8.95), a large bowl of rice, comes with various green leafy vegetables (including a subtly spicy "mountain vegetable"), nutty sprouts, a fried egg on top and a bowl of hot sauce on the side. Ask the waitress to mix and assemble the dish for you (I tried to do it myself, and she took it from me). What you'll get is a riot of flavors and textures: tender rice, still-crunchy veggies and sprouts, rich egg and spicy sauce.
I'd also ask the waitress to mix the bibim naeng myun (E2, $8.95). It's a bowl of steamed thin buckwheat noodles, with hot sauce, veggies and a few strips of meat. On the side is a cup of strange, sweet liquid, a little of which is mixed with all the other ingredients until the sauce is the appropriate consistency, and the sweet and hot spicy noodles are perfect for slurping.
Kimchee bok eum (G2, $16.95) requires no waitress assistance. Slices of pork are panfried with kimchi and hot bean sauce then served on a bed of creamy sliced tofu. The tofu's bland creaminess acts as a counterpoint to the spicy, slightly chewy pork and the tangy, slightly crunchy kimchi. Deelish.
A major part of any Korean meal (and a freebie to boot!) are namuls, little vegetable dishes meant to be eaten between bites of the main course. I liked all 12 that we were served at Nam Gang, but I particularly enjoyed spinach dressed simply with sesame oil, a dish of crunchy, extremely nutty sprouts, chunks of waxy potatoes in a spicy sauce, and an amazing dish of "spicy lettuces," assorted greens tossed with a startlingly assertive dressing. Bonus: Namul dishes are refilled as often as you like.
Between the food we ordered and the namul dishes, we could barely see the table and still we managed to eat everything there. After the wreckage was cleared away, while we were sitting there stunned and stuffed, the waitress brought mugs of a cooling drink made from rice, sugar and malt. "It's for your digestion," she explained. It was that and a balm for our exhausted taste buds as well.
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