In Flushing, Myung San Plumbs the Depths of Fermented Korean Comfort Food
Myulchi bokkeum makes for a dramatic start.
"We're known for fermentation," confides Hoon Beam Cho when I ask him if I missed anything on my first visit to Myung San, a Korean comfort-food restaurant on the outskirts of Flushing in view of the Broadway Long Island Railroad Station. The cordial host is referring to cheonggukjang, a malodorous fermented soybean mash that's used to make a pungent brew of the same name, affectionately dubbed "dead body stew" thanks to its smell. It should come as no surprise that TV personality Andrew Zimmern has consumed the dish in its homeland of southwestern Korea on his show Bizarre Foods; the man couldn't get enough.
I'll admit that I was not so immediately moved. When more than two tables order the soup — with its musty, rust-colored kimchi broth murky with bean paste and punctuated by cubes of semi-firm tofu — walking into the spare 26-seat space feels akin, at least olfactorily, to entering a shipping container that doubles as a poorly ventilated hot yoga class for Medieval Times knights. But then you take a deep breath, unsheathe your individually wrapped silverware bearing the restaurant's name, and plunge spoon-first into a world of fermented funk. There's a pervasive nuttiness that's cut by a sharp, almost cheese-like saltiness. The dish's edge softens as you eat, its tempestuous flavors settling into a low hum of rotten musk. Fermented proteins are the Nicolas Cages of the chef's larder, captivating in their ability to at once confound and delight.
Cho runs the restaurant with his sister Young Hee, the two of them greeting diners, passing out menus, and distributing banchan, the complimentary snacks that start nearly every Korean meal. At Myung San, the spread can include vegetables such as marinated eggplant and matchsticks of young radish kimchi, pan-fried tofu with chile sauce, miniature dried and candied anchovies that taste like sweet and salty fish jerky, and kimchijeon, a scallion pancake tinged orange with kimchi that's both crisp and a bit gummy.
While the kids manage the dining room, the kitchen is Mom's domain. As both owner and chef since the restaurant opened in 2003, Gap Soon Cho cooks a lengthy roster of soups, stews, grilled meats (including pork belly on a gas stove), and stir-fries. And though the restaurant is beloved for its uniquely assertive stew, Cho holds an equally endearing command over more recognizable Korean fare, like a ssambap spread of slightly chewy pork belly cooked in gochujang, a fermented chile paste that adds heat and depth.
Spicy, sizzling pork makes for a fine perfume compared to the cheonggukjang, but even more alluring is Ms. Cho's plated Eden of fresh vegetable and herb ssam, an array of flora any botanist would envy. The display comes piled high with lettuces, bulky sheets of napa cabbage, fiery tubes of green chile pepper, cilantro, perilla leaves, and a trio of greens: dandelion, chrysanthemum, and boiled and chilled collards. Ms. Cho grows much of it, supplanting the rest with produce from Asian grocery H Mart. This is anti-dare food, and yet it still feels exciting assembling different combinations of flavors from the verdant assortment. Layer a leafy green with rice, herbs, meat, and a spoonful of ssamjang sauce buzzing with scallions and fresh sliced chiles, fold, and chomp away. The order includes a small bowl of tofu stew flavored with doenjang, cheonggukjang's milder, longer-fermented cousin (fermentation actually mellows the harshness of the soybeans), which shows up in a vast number of Korean dishes.
There are no tables for two at Myung San. They would be dwarfed by the massive trays of jeongol, stew-like casseroles on steroids that feed six easily and cost upward of $40. They overflow with proteins both animal and vegetable, including spicy duck, swellfish, and tender goat meat crowned with perilla leaves. Less grandiose but no less satisfying is tteok manduguk, a milky, starchy soup made from pork bones and brimming with chewy, glutinous rice cake slivers, strands of cooked egg, and coarsely chopped pork and vegetable dumplings. Forget chicken; this is pork soup for the soul.
In the late afternoon and into the evening, saucers of makgeolli, a cloudy white alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice, begin to appear. The restaurant serves two kinds: a sweeter, fizzier brew from Kooksoondang brewery in Korea, and the locally produced Dudukju brand made in the Catskills, at Kim's Farm Resort in Wurtsboro. Dudukju has a resolute dryness, its sweetness and carbonation muted like Spanish Txakoli.
Myung San offers no formal dessert, but Gap Soon will cut up a mean fruit plate upon request. All growing boys and girls can appreciate that.
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