Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Best of Korea 2014: Rice Cake with Fries, Oyster Rice Soup and The Most (Deliciously) Aged Kimchi You'll Ever Have

It's never easy to pinpoint the best things you ate during a whirlwind trip. It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it. Here I present my top picks from Korea. Overall, I was disappointed by some of the high-end fusion attempts and found the old school spots to be the best with only a few exceptions. I also rediscovered the beauty of Pusan, or Busan, as they call it now. Who knew Pusan would turn into Blade Runner city in a matter of 20 years? Warning: most of the spots here don't have websites so you will have to find them via blogs and message boards. Sorry but many Korean restaurants don't have websites, especially the hole-in-the-wall-type joints.

One of the favorite things we ate was ttukbokki, of course. You know how much I grumbled about a dearth of half-way decent ttukbokki here in LA. Well, we went to Hongdaeipku and conquered this super crowded spot that served excellent ttubokki, cooked tableside -- rice cakes cooked in a garlicky and spicy sauce with ramyun noodles, hard boiled egg, scallions and perilla leaves. It has a long name, 또 보겠지 떡볶이집, or 또떡 (ttottuk) for short, that roughly translates to "Ttukbokki place that you'll probably see again." Behold this beauty. What made it even better: thick fries smothered with a healthy dose of garlic mayo we got on the side. It looks gnarly but it's actually the bomb. I still dream about this.
Next up: I never considered myself a huge oyster fan but I had the best oyster kookbab, which had fresh oysters sizzling in a stone pot with some rice and buchu, or greens similar to chives. The soup was lightly seasoned but the piping hot soup hit the spot in sub-zero temperatures in Seoul. It was nourishing and had a different twist with the oysters -- this soup usually comes with bean sprouts and kimchi but this was a more-than-fine substitute. (Restaurant: Kim Myungja Gul Kookbab, 김명자굴국밥 계동점)
I almost finished all this fried chicken from Happiness Chicken (행복치킨) in Bundang by myself had it not been for my eating companion guilt-tripping me into sharing it. But seriously, I liked that it came with shredded scallions that gave it a refreshing counterbalance to the fried chicken. Koreans have many monikers for fried chicken - chimaek (치맥) that stands for beer and (fried) chicken and padak (파닭) that stands for scallions (shredded and raw) with (fried or fried and smothered in sauce) chicken. It was garlicky, crispy and moist. The trifecta of amazing fried chicken.
My monumental dinner party went well with many dishes that I was proud of. The one thing that I was most proud of, however, was this Chilean cake called Mil Hojas made out of a million cans of dulce de leche. It translates to a thousand layers so I first baked like 8 layers of dough, slathered each with as much dulce de leche as it could take, stacked them high and once done, slathered some more dulce de leche on the sides to seal it from all directions and then sprinkled it with almonds all over.
It actually came out as I remembered it from Chile. Topped with some creme fraiche or whipped cream, it was a hit, if I may say so myself. I'll definitely make it again.
I threw this one in for its photogenic qualities and plain awesomeness. It was a potato pancake topped with smoked salmon and sturgeon slices with a dollop of creme fraiche (I used whipped cream because creme is harder to find in Korea) and caviar. It was a crowd-pleasing appetizer to our meal. 
I have a newfound appreciation for ttukgalbi, which I had always chalked up as inferior to galbi. It's ground galbi meat (or finely chopped up as they do in traditional kitchens) seasoned like the classic rib meat but built into patties and grilled. It was moist, tender and seasoned just right.
The kicker for this restaurant (Jin Il Jeung, 진일정, near the Blue House), though, was the braised sardine with extra-aged kimchi known as mugeunji. Wow. I couldn't stop eating that kimchi.
The rice came in a stone pot with all these beans and pumpkin that are good for you. Delicious.
I always try to have things I feel LA's Korean restos don't do as well, such as ttukbokki and jjajangmyun, black bean sauce noodles, the classic Chinese-Korean dish. Happy to report I got my noodle fix at Yeonhwasan (연화산) in a neighborhood near Karak Fish Market. I loved its jjajjai, it's kimchi-like side dish that goes so well with both the sweet and sour pork as well as the noodles.
Can't have jjajangmyun without tangsuyook, the equally classic fried pork smothered in a sweet and sour sauce with veggies. The pork was crispy and the glistening sauce was light without being too gooey or sweet.
I was a happy camper. 'Nuf said. Ok, I'll just say I mourn the less than serviceable bowls of jjajangmyun all across America.
I wasn't the only one who cooked -- hail the other cook who concocted some pretty amazing things such as this wonderful greens salad with fresh persimmons and dried persimmons as well as roasted pine nuts for some crunch. The colors were beautiful and textures came alive upon each bite. 
The piece de resistance, however, was this slow roasted pork that was charred on the outside and soft and tender on the inside. The heavily seasoned crispy skin complemented the mild meat so well. Wrap that baby in a lettuce leaf and you got yourself a great pairing. Went well with red wine too.
I don't feel too guilty having a meat fest in Korea because it often comes with all these vegetables that surely cancels out all the badness in the meat. It almost looked like a hot pot and the meat wasn't seasoned.
We cooked the raw meat in the pot and dipped it in a slightly sweet soy sauce-based sauce with chopped onions. It was such a soul-feeding meal -- warm and hearty without being too heavy.
Check out the sizzling action here. 
After the meat, they served gondeurae rice, rice mixed with a green that is also extremely nutritious. I have to apologize that I misplaced the card for this one but it's in Bundang near Jeongjadong. 
Hello, Pusan! We ran into this port city's most famous bakery, Ops, and went to town. It was as crowded as you'd imagine and we bought everything from fish egg baguette to red bean manju (a take on the Japanese sweet potato pastry -- a lot of Japanese influences because of its proximity) and giant cream puffs. It didn't disappoint. We were going to have a taste before dinner and ended up totaling half of our purchase and most of the following day's snacks. Sure, it's hit or miss as far as what you pick. For instance, I wouldn't get the croissants. But those red bean thingies and the cream puffs were addictive. Worth the insane lines at the cashiers. 

We were lucky to be staying near a whole slew of solid, relatively non-touristy spots despite the fact that it was in Haewoondae Beach, the city's most famous and usually most crowded area. Our first dinner was at 그때 그집, that translates to That House a While Back or at That Time known for local specialties such as grilled fish and lots of seaweed varieties. 
The images are somewhat blurry but wanted to show you the sheer varieties of kelp and seaweed that we got. Use them as wraps or side dishes. Take your pick.
Both of these side dishes are types of seaweed -- one seasoned with vinegar and sugar and another with added spicy pepper flakes.
Grilled fish. I liked the braised version better but this wasn't too shabby.
The restaurant is most famous for this super-fermented soy bean paste stew called cheonggookjang. Delicious and hearty with enoki mushrooms, buchu greens and tofu blocks.
This was my favorite dish -- slow braised mackerel with some giant blocks of radishes that are almost better than the fish. The normally neutral-tasting radish transforms itself into the softest repository of wonderful spicy and sweet juices from the braising. You know, like potatoes in a stew that have absorbed all that goodness.
 More seaweed! The white specks are crumbled tofu.
 Two kinds of kimchi to round out the table.
This is parae, a type of seaweed that's finer and softer than regular sea kelp -- slightly tangy from the vinegar and sweet.
Meet Samjin Eomook, one of the oldest fish cake shops in Pusan (since 1953 -- that's when the Korean War reached an armistice). I was bummed that I wasn't able to visit the actual shop but was heartened to see a small shop in the train station (by the way, the US needs to join civilization and get bullet trains). Given how many different kinds of fish cakes were displayed in this tiny store, I can only imagine how vast of a selection the original location has. Fish cake wrapped in a shiso leaf, squares of fish cake dotted with finely chopped bell peppers and of course, since we're in Pusan, seaweed fish cakes. Browse and see what kind you would get. I tried many and liked the one with burdock root and seaweed. Never thought I've have gourmet fish cakes.

I had the best dessert at Bicena, a high-end Korean restaurant in Itaewon. It was mulberry tea (뽕잎차) ice cream topped with a candied walnut. I wasn't as familiar with mulberry tea but it was similar to green tea only a bit more intense. It was a winning pairing with the crunchy texture of walnut. 
The fusion-y meal at Mingles Restaurant in Cheongdamdong was one of the better takes on Korean food we had. The fish with an oyster and avocado sauce was not too heavy and had the right mix of flavors and textures.
You can hardly ever go wrong with uni (sea urchin) and this noodle dish was no exception. It had shrimp and uni in a mild sauce drizzled with some olive oil. Simple and delicious.

I love me some dumplings but I'm pretty picky when it comes to dumplings. Ok. I'm picky all the time so I was ecstatic to find some solid dumplings made by Korean-Chinese people who had brought their top notch dumpling-making skills to Korea. Called Jonny Dumpling with three locations in Itaewon, this tiny shop has different kinds of dumplings and also serves dumpling soup with mussels. You can choose between steamed or pan-fried dumplings. Tough choice, truly. Everything is hand-made, including the skin, and the shrimp one has huge chunks of shrimp in it (unlike tiny specs that are barely there).
I got some to go to try the pan-fried one and the egg and buchu (greens) mandu (dumplings), which were all stellar. This was no ordinary mandu shop.
Last but not least, we ventured to Bisugumi (비수구미), a place featured on one of my favorite food shows, Delicious TV or 찾아라 맛있는 TV. It was located somewhat far off, so I wasn't sure I'd make it but boy, am I glad we went off the beaten path to find this gem. The tofu (made at the premises from scratch) with stir fried kimchi was excellent. We also had dudeok, one of my favorite roots smothered in a red spicy seasoning.
The namul, or greens side dishes, came out labelled for your reference since there are so many. Cute and informative all at once. It was fun trying each and deciphering their unique flavors.
It also had doraji, another root that is hard to find here and that I love. It was seasoned lightly, the ivory strips on the lower left side of the above image. All in all, a fantastic culinary journey, as always. I will miss the flavors and textures dearly and will try to replicate some of them in my kitchen. Will share any successes. 

No comments:

Post a Comment