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Food Gallery 32: Getting Chigae With It

Wild adventures in a Koreatown food court

"Mmm, this gravy is delicious," my Taiwanese-Canadian friend exclaimed as she spooned up giant bites of rice swamped with a savory brown sauce. In between, she took stabs at heaps of pickled mustard greens and steamed bok choi. Indeed, she polished off the polished grain and foliage before she even appraised the formidable pair of pork chops that sprawled across her plate. When she finally got to them, the chops alternated chewy parts with tender and were way porky. She finished by sucking the marrow from the bones.

We were dining on a massive $8 platter from Bian Dang (No. 5), the only Taiwanese stall in Food Gallery 32, a gleaming one-year-old food court in Koreatown. The ground floor is devoted to seven counters—predominantly purveying Korean, Korean-Japanese, and Korean-Chinese food—plus a beverage seller and a Red Mango yogurt concession. The ground floor offers a cluster of tables, and there's mezzanine seating above, presenting dramatic views of the food seekers below. Teenagers favor the isolated third floor, where they hang with their buds, excitedly chattering and sharing cheap snacks until the place shuts down at midnight. We took advantage of this isolation by furtively knocking back smuggled-in glasses of fizzy white wine as we ate. On three tumultuous occasions in a single week, groups of friends and I explored this wonderful dining complex and sampled dozens of dishes.

Descended from a popular food-vending truck, the Bian Dang stall offers further gravied delights featuring chicken, beef, and tofu. Right next door is Jin Jja Roo (No. 6), with a name that promises gingery fare from the Korean-Chinese canon. Like all nationalities, Koreans have their own version of Chinese food, the quintessence of which is jja jang myun ($5.99), hand-pulled noodles seething with a midnight-black bean sauce sweetened with caramelized onions. Excellent fried dumplings, stuffed with pork or bean-thread vermicelli and vegetables, are available at this stall, too. But skip the ma po tofu, which is bland and dotted with frozen mixed vegetables. As with nearly all meals at Food Gallery 32, these entrées come accompanied by kimchi, yellow pickled daikon, a small salad, and soup or barley tea.

Now where's that contraband wine . . .
Harry Seward
Now where's that contraband wine . . .

It wouldn't be an Asian food court without a place that exploits the popularity of ramen, and Noodle 32 (No. 7) is that spot. And though you might be accustomed to paying upwards of $15 per bowl for these noodles, which originated in China but were revamped first by the Japanese and then by the Koreans, here you can get a serving for as little as $5.95. That buys you a generous bowl with a 50/50 mix of ramen and gooey rice cakes topped with a poached egg and vegetables. For a dollar more, you can have a slice of American cheese melted on top. But who'd want that? A better choice is a bamboo mat of buckwheat soba ($7.95) served with a gingery soy dipping sauce. Nothing healthier in the heat of the summer.

A couple of counters are monomaniacal, slinging only one or two specialties. Pastel (No. 2) offers plate-busting Japanese fried katsu pork cutlets, sided with pink pickled ginger, chopped fresh chiles, a salad of sprouts and tomatoes, and somewhat randomly, a heap of corn kernels. Pick the version with curry gravy, and you won't be hungry for a good long time. Funny name aside, Boon Sik Zip (No. 1) is perhaps the most interesting stall. It specializes in miniature nori rolls with a strange series of stuffings: baked ham, anchovies and chiles, beef teriyaki, and—the world might not be ready for this—bacon and pickled garlic ($2.50). Another specialty of the stall is a ruffly fish cake presented on skewers with a cup of the thin poaching liquid.

With the "O" in the logo shooting flames, O-De-Ppang! (No. 3) slings crock-sizzling Korean bibimbap, the over-rice warm salad, which is available in several permutations. Only one is served cold, featuring thick, uncooked slices of yellowtail and snapper ($9.99). Mix in the ketchup-like red sauce before wolfing it down. You don't get this much high-quality raw fish so cheaply often. Teppanyaki-style griddle-cooked pork, beef, chicken, squid, and tofu are also offered here as part of huge set meals.

The most ambitious establishment is Korea House (No. 4), which seeks to vend nearly the entire menu of the East Asian isthmus from a short counter. The fiery stews called chigaes ($8.99 and up) are particularly fine, still boiling in their stoneware when served to you. The bibimbap variations are good, too, but skip precooked barbecue items like bulgogi. Somehow, if you don't grill these dishes yourself, all the fun goes out of them. And you go to Food Gallery 32 to have fun, right?

rsietsema@villagevoice.com

For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.

 
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