Unshrouding The Mystery Of Korean Cuisine

Last year, I trekked out to Koreatown in Flushing, Queens, with a group of friends. Sitting in Korean restaurants with a dozen non-Korean eaters, we spent an evening eating everything our stomachs would allow. At one point a 20-something of Korean descent wandered over to us. “I don’t mean this in a rude way,” he said. “But what are you doing here?”

Non-Koreans, apparently, don’t go to the Flushing Koreatown. And from the looks of it, they don’t go to the one in Manhattan much either.

It’s 11:07 p.m. on a Thursday night in Manhattan’s Koreatown and every table is full at Pocha 32 – but with young Korean hipsters. I’m with my food-writing friend Matt Rodbard, 32, editor-at-large at FoodRepublic.com and an all-around swell guy.

This would be our third meal of the night, as part of a K-Town crawl we were doing. The reason? Matt’s the author of a just-released book on the Korean restaurants of New York City (called, appropriately enough, “Korean Restaurant Guide New York”). I have a strong yen to learn more about Korean cuisine, which has always seemed nebulous to me. So when you have a friend who writes a book on the subject, you take him out.We began at Arang, a dark, second-floor restaurant, for drinks and snacks. We sipped beer and makguli, a cloudy unfiltered rice wine, out of tin pots. We snacked on threadsail filefish, which were cured (imagine fishy beef jerky. Now imagine it tasting really delicious). I’d never heard of filefish and I’d never even think to order them. Then again, I would have never wandered up to this restaurant, either.

Korean cuisine has been garnering more interest over the years. Chefs like David Chang and Roy Choi, while not serving straight up Korean but rather Korean-influenced fare at their restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, respectively, have brought a lot more attention to a cuisine many American-born eaters have largely ignored.

But could this heightened interest in Korean deliciousness be boiled down to two chefs? “Not really,” said Rodbard, who also thinks New York chef Hooni Kim should be acknowledged. “Korean food has a long way to go. It’s still relatively under the radar,” Rodbard said, claiming interest in Korean fare is really just part of the global Asian food phenomenon where eaters around the world are becoming more interested in various Asian cuisines, in general.

Next we ended up at Han Bat eating soondae, an unctuous and utterly addictive blood sausage, a dish that’s common in night markets in Korea but not very common here. The sausage was stuffed with pork, liver and noodles and I couldn’t stop eating it.

“Why have I never heard of this?” I asked Matt. “It’s amazing.”

“Koreans,” he said, “have a hard time at marketing their cuisine and culture. This book, though, is an attempt to change that.”

The book is free – you can find it in New York at Korea Society, Asia Society, the Korean consulate, NYC Information Center and various hotels around the city. Funded by the Korean government to help promote Korean cuisine, it was written by Rodbard but he had a team of four other eaters to help him (food writers Jenny Miller and Jamie Feldmar and two Korean chefs).

By the time we got to Pocha 32, our last stop for the night, I was full but wanted more. Pocha 32 is on the second floor and doesn’t have a particularly inviting entrance. But once we got to the top of the stairs it was like we’d crashed a party just hitting its crescendo. K-pop blasted from the speakers and the young Koreans packing the place drank booze ladled from a scooped out watermelon.

Another restaurant I wouldn’t have known existed; another score for me.

[Photo of Matt Rodbard courtesy of Matt Rodbard]