World Peace and Barbecue
It's a plot with a deliciously Houstonian twist: after years of combing my beloved East End for great barbecue, I finally hit the jackpot -- in an unsung little Korean joint.
Faintly sweet, richly scallion-flavored, the crusty grilled pork ribs at Woo Mi Gwan qualify as seriously Texas-friendly grub. But at this neat, no-frills strip-center spot, which lurks behind an inscrutable facade-within-a-facade on the way to Hobby Airport, the satisfactions go beyond barbecue. Chasers after ethnic esoterica and hot-chile thrills will find plenty to like here, from the amiable proprietors -- who regard their few non-Korean patrons with an air of gracious and slightly giggly bemusement -- to the galaxy of turbo-charged pickles and relishes that accompanies a Woo Mi Gwan meal.
A few caveats. Forget inviting friends who require snappy, American-style service or capital-D Decor to share your Woo Mi Gwan expedition. Ditto the ones likely to be affrighted by a menu that lists such alien delicacies as chitterling casserole, goat pot soup and raw skate. But the open-minded can feast here for about ten bucks a head, starting with a fabulous homestyle dumpling soup swimming with silky egg drops and inky ribbons of seaweed. Sturdy, savory dumplings and a hint of ginger make this golden soup one of the East End's primo amenities -- not to mention the soup most likely to revive a sickly or beleaguered person's will to live.
Woo Mi Gwan's second must-have dish is the showstopping seafood pancake, a pizza-size cartwheel of velvety egg-and-flour batter that is crisped on the outside, bristling with morsels of oyster, crab and squid within. Flashes of emerald scallion and crimson pepper give it color; a soy-and-scallion dip gives it dash when customized, Korean-style, with powdered red pepper and vinegar.
Next course: any of the Korean barbecue dishes. Ask for those gratifying pork ribs (I think they're listed on the Korean-script menu section rather than the translated section, but I wouldn't swear to it); a single order yields enough of the nicely charred bones for three or four people to gnaw on, but double the order if you're feeling carnivorous. Beef short ribs (bul kalbi) are fine, too, sliced off the bone into pleasantly chewy strips and bedded down on grilled onion.
The grilled meats acquire extra dimension from the array of Korean side dishes that act as salsa, salad, hors d'oeuvre and relish all rolled into one. These tiny dishes take you on a journey to a far country: one where barely pickled bean sprouts soothe palates inflamed by red-hot cubes of crisp, bitter turnip and briny cabbage kim chee; one where cool, slippery squares of "green starch" are stacked like dominoes, wearing festive seaweed-and-carrot hats. The garlicky celadon broth of a liquid "summer salad" tames a fiery dish of dried radish strips. Tart, chilly slivers of vegetable slaw chase sweet, translucent curls of an ethereal fish jerky that Korean kids love, with good reason.
Eight to ten of these amazing concoctions land upon your table at once, in varying combinations, primed to scintillate or amuse or take your palate for a wild ride. One night's chilefied, wilted greens are another night's supple dried fish strips in an incendiary, dark-red marinade, with disks of green chile adding a second layer of heat. Together they ensure that no meal at Woo Mi Gwan will descend into boredom. Should the excitement prove too much, call for a round of O.B. beer, the obscure but respectable Seoul-bottled lager.
Those in the market for a starch to round out the ideal Woo Mi Gwan meal can order bi bim bap (translated here as "rice mixed with seasoned vegetables"), a mound of sticky rice hidden beneath romaine strips, bean sprouts, dried radish, mushrooms and fried egg. More Korean-style customizing is in order here: the laughing young man who produced this dish showed us how to ladle on some soup broth, the better to toss it all together -- with some hot red bean paste for good measure. I sneaked in some vinegar from a tabletop cruet, and found the effect highly satisfactory.
Pasta hounds, on the other hand, may want to experiment with a silvery bowlful of cold, wonderfully bouncy buckwheat noodles spiked with lots of red pepper and accessorized with matchsticks of raw pear, marinated radish, wilted greens and hardboiled egg. Oh, and a couple of disposable slices of gray mystery meat. A few drops of vinegar, a dab of pickled vegetables, and I was in business.
Beyond my ideal meal, there are other worthy dishes to be had here. Among the least threatening are deep-fried dumplings with the cheerful name of yaki mandu: crunchy half-moons with a fresh, delicate taste and texture. Among the more foreign -- think of it as a Korean bouillabaisse or fish gumbo -- is the spicy black cod soup, a big potful of thin, red-peppery broth that smells of the sea. Bobbing in it are stalky greens, mild soft chunks of fish bearing skin and bone, even softer squares of bean curd, plus turnip, carrot and zucchini sliced thin. With rice stirred in to cut the heat, this soup has an elemental and uncompromising effect that will speak to purists, if not to everyone.
The bottom line is that I have yet to encounter a bad dish here. Woo Mi Gwan's is an authentic, honest kitchen that makes few concessions to American tastes -- wouldn't even know how to -- and still ends up with food that Texans can appreciate. But unlike most venues where Texans congregate to sear their palates and devour grilled meats, Woo Mi Gwan sends you home with a light step, oddly invigorated despite having consumed ribs and dumplings and seafood pancake and scads of extracurricular bites.
Since it's on my end of town, it has behooved me to decipher Woo Mi Gwan's little mysteries and quirks. I know not to heed the owners' admonitions that certain items are "too spicy" for non-Koreans; aside from a few sinus-clearing side dishes, the heat levels aren't lethal. I know to speak up for glasses of water and soup bowls and plates -- items which the cordial hosts, for reasons best known to themselves, provide only on a random basis. I know to avoid the grim fluorescent glare on one side of the restaurant by claiming the big round table in a far corner, where gentler light from simple rice-paper fixtures holds sway.
I have learned to love -- well, like -- the rudimentary decor, a rectilinear tracery of pale-wood screens and readymade partitions, equal parts Builders Square and Seoul-on-a-Shoestring. And I confess a fondness for Woo Mi Gwan's oddball atmospherics, furnished by a karaoke video screen that bippity-bops along with Korean lyrics on a tide of marshmallowy synthesizer music. To date I have recognized only "The Green, Green Grass of Home" and a Donny Osmondish "Too Young" -- both, I might add, to my sorrow. Mostly the tunes conjure up a manic teddy bear's picnic. Adding a tinge of virtual unreality is the dining room's chronically underpopulated state; doubtless it has been many moons since a patron arose to warble a Korean ditty, but the perpetual-motion karaoke machine plunges along regardless, a '90s-style headless horseman.
At the end of the meal, your check arrives at the table escorted by neatly wrapped sticks of chewing gum. I have come to look forward to this curious ritual; I have even been known to argue over the Juicy Fruit. And, like a high jumper eyeing the six-foot bar, I am psyching myself up for a run at the menu's terra incognita. Today, pork ribs; tomorrow, pan-fried octopus.
Woo Mi Gwan Korean Restaurant, 8221 Broadway, 645-7172.
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