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]

Cheap eats on the streets of Seoul

Street food may seem like a strange local feature to promote, but in Seoul‘s case, I get it. During my year in Korea, I ate more from the street than I did from those places with tables … restaurants, they’re called. Seoul’s street food is fantastic, and I’m glad the city’s talking it up. After a night of soju kettles, there’s nothing better than some fries and dumplings. If you’re a bit more adventurous, check out the boiled silkworm and blood sausage.

For the best eats, check out the Myung-dong and Insa-dong districts. Namdaemun is great as well, and you’re likely to build up a hell of an appetite while shopping in the city’s largest open-air market. To really bond with the local offer, try a pojangmacha — which translates to “covered wagon.” Think of it as a restaurant in a tent on wheels, and you won’t have to look far to find one.

When it comes time for something baked, look for one of the Koryodong shops. I was thrilled to see one here in New York (in Koreatown), a little taste of what was once home.

[Photo by UNC – CFC – USFK via Flickr]

Undiscovered New York: Best rooftop bars

With so many drinking options in New York, it’s easy to get dizzy with all the choices. Here at Undiscovered New York, we’ve covered some of the Big Apple’s many drinking dens before. But there’s something particularly special about drinking in New York in Summer. Nothing better epitomizes those balmy nights than holding a chilled highball glass or beer in hand, watching as a fiery orange dusk melts into the humming yellow lights and steel grey of the skyline below. And if outdoor drinking is your goal, there’s nowhere better to do it than one of the city’s many rooftop drinking establishments.

Whether you choose to patronize New York’s many hotels with chic rooftop bars, or an al fresco rooftop museum space with some artwork to boot, New York boasts a surprisingly diverse assortment of outdoor drinking spaces. In a city crowded with skyscrapers and world class architecture, you’re also sure to be rewarded with not only a new perspective on the city but some killer views to boot. And while rooftop drinking is by no means a cheap pursuit, (your beverage will typically set you back $3-5 extra on average) if you choose the right spot and right happy hours it can be surprisingly affordable.

This week at Undiscovered New York, we’re elevating our look at the city to a new level. Just in time for Summer, join us as we take you up to five our favorite rooftoop drinking spaces. Ready to rise to the occasion? Grab your sunglasses and we’ll take you through our picks after the jump.
Rooftop #1 – The Pool Deck @ Empire Hotel
The neighborhood near New York’s Lincoln Center has long been regarded as a nightlife dead zone. That has changed in recent years with the opening of The Pool Deck at the Empire Hotel. In addition to boasting stellar views of the nearby Lincoln Center and Manhattan traffic artery Broadway,The Pool Deck is of particular note for its awesome vintage neon sign. Visitors can enjoy a cocktail right underneath the imposing red glow of this historic landmark.

Rooftop #2 – Bookmarks @ Library Hotel
The Midtown Library Hotel is a bastion of calm and cool in an otherwise bland area of Manhattan. In addition to the hotel’s literary decor, (the lobby is lined with shelves of books) visitors can enjoy some downright poetic scenery at the hotel’s rooftop Bookmarks bar. The mahogany paneling and fireplace will ensure your creative juices (or at least conversations) are flowing in no time.

Rooftop #3 – The Met Rooftop Bar
New Yorkers and visitors alike respect New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as a treasure trove of culture and creativity on the city’s Upper East Side. But not quite as many patronize the museum’s beautiful rooftop bar with stunning views of Midtown Manhattan and nearby Central Park. In addition to soaking up some alcoholic beverages, guests can take in outdoor art exhibitions from the museum’s diverse collections.

Rooftop #4 – Mé Bar @ La Quinta Inn
On first glance, the La Quinta Inn on Manhattan’s 32nd Street appears to be nothing special. But New Yorkers in-the-know pay this first impression no heed. Up on the roof of this nonchalant budget property is one of New York City’s most killer views of the nearby Empire State Building. Sip a cocktail while this iconic landmark rises above you like a massive steel giant, brightly glowing with its trademark lights. Anyone in need of a snack can order some delicious Korean food from the area’s many nearby eateries. Check Undiscovered New York’s recent look at Koreatown for more info.

Rooftop #5 – Rare View @ Shelburne Murray Hill
Hip New Yorkers have written off the Murray Hill neighborhood for dead. All the better for you – the Shelburne’s Rare View rooftop bar is the area’s secret weapon. Though this rooftop can get crowded during the post-workday rush, it offers blissful up-close-and-personal views of some Manhattan’s most famous architectural landmarks. As you sip your drink it will be hard to miss the imposing silhouettes of the nearby Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. It’s a free architectural tour of New York’s greatest hits, all for the low price of a refreshing beverage in a plastic cup.

Undiscovered New York – Exploring Koreatown

Like many other large cities, you might already know that New York has a large and continuously growing Chinatown. Yet in a city that is home to more than 100 distinct immigrant groups, it’s also home to a surprisingly diverse assortment of residents from homes across the Asian continent. One strip of authentic Asian culture that tends to get overshadowed by Chinatown is Koreatown, its lesser-known neighbor on 32nd Street between Broadway and 5th Avenue.

Also known by its nickname “K-Town,” this densely-populated block packs in a huge range of entertainment and culinary options, enough in fact to make a full evening out of it. Sandwiched inside the upper floors of surprisingly drab commercial office buildings are hidden Korean Barbecue joints, raucous BYOB Karaoke dens, swanky lounges and rooftop bars with stunning views of the Empire State Building. It’s a city in and of itself, and a strip that’s particularly ripe for exploration.

Want to learn more about where to go and what to see to make the most of your trip? Step inside Undiscovered New York’s guide to Koreatown.
Bon Chon Chicken
Think you’ve had some great fried chicken before? You haven’t lived until you try the spicy and soy-garlic style Korean fried chicken at Bon Chon. This swanky spot offers a range of Korean bar-food favorites including the aforementioned chicken, Latin American-style sweet corn, sushi and rosemary french fries. It’s a Korean smorgasbord in the best possible sense – trust me, the combination of food sounds odd, but it works. And when you take that first bite of chicken you’ll be making plans for your next trip back.

Karaoke Dens
Koreatown is not just about eating – it’s just as much a street that’s made for entertainment. And when we’re talking about evening plans in Koreatown, that typically means Karaoke. As you walk down 32nd street you’ll find any number of signboards advertising karaoke bars on the floors within. Just find any place that looks interesting and walk on in. Those with a severe case of stage fright shouldn’t despair – almost all karaoke spots in Koreatown let you rent private rooms so you can belt out that off-key rendition of Barry Manilow without fear of embarassment. A karaoke session typically includes a private room, a variety of bar snacks and server to bring you drinks. One of the better known spots on 32nd Street is iBop, well known for its “bring your own alcohol” policies.

Korean Barbecue
As you might expect on a street specializing in the food and culture of Korea, there’s a plentiful assortment of Korean Barbecue restaurants. A meal typically consists of an assortment of plentiful grilled meats, prepared on an in-table grill as well as an array of small dishes like the ubiquitous kimchi and other pickled vegetables. Though there’s a number good Korean Barbecue spots on 32nd Street, our favorite is actually Kum Gang Sang, if for no other reason than the insane fake-rock grotto complete with grand piano wedged in the corner of the restaurant. Another good choice is Seoul Garden, a restaurant located in an unassuming corner of the second floor of an office building.

Million Dollar Views
One of the more interesting characteristics of Koreatown is its proximity to one of New York City’s most iconic buildings, the Empire State Building. Want to get a bird’s-eye of this amazing structure? Shhhh….you’ve got to keep it a secret though. Koreatown visitors in the know head to the rooftop patio at the La Quinta Inn, called Mé Bar, where they can drink in million dollar views along with a beverage of choice. Its perhaps the perfect way to end an evening in one of New York’s lesser known but fantastic neighborhoods.