Seoul New Level: Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong Wears the Crown in Koreatown
Photos by Zachary Feldman, the Village Voice
Midway through dinner, watching paper-thin folds of brisket curl and sizzle on the circular grill, I lost my train of thought. Not because of the beef — though it was generously marbled and practically melting — but because of a golden teapot. From the gilded vessel, our pencil-mustached server poured whisked eggs into a crescent-shaped moat with bravado (nice wrist work, bro). As they bubbled into creamy curds, a similar heated trough melted cheese and corn into gooey symbiosis along the other side of the tabletop.
This was round two of the breakfasty side dishes that cook in conjunction with various meats at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong (1 East 32nd Street, 212-966-9839)(pronounced "beck-jong"), the newest branch in a chain of popular Korean barbecue restaurants owned by gregarious comedian and former wrestler Kang Ho-dong. They're overshadowed by the animal cuts and even the other banchan — free, palate-cleansing starters like kimchi, soft tofu simmered in soy and sesame, and beet-juice-pickled radishes — that greet patrons with as much punch and sass as the staff members who shout their welcomes like a well-meaning middle school choir.
Diners have a lot to shout about here, too. Joseph Ko, a hulking presence in whichever of the two dining rooms he occupies, studied traditional Korean ssireum wrestling under Kang. Late last year, with his mentor's blessing, he and entrepreneur Bobby Kwak opened what they consider to be the brand's U.S. flagship. Unlike Kang's three older stateside Baekjeongs (one of which is in Flushing) — not to mention several other yakiniku barbecue concepts that have yet to make it to our shores, including one devoted to intestines that I hope comes next — this new midtown location banks on a chef with fine-dining chops. Baby-faced Deuki Hong, who as a teen worked at the side of star chefs Aarón Sánchez and David Chang, oversees both back- and front-of-house staff, training servers how to prepare each cut of meat. Most popular are the combination meals, coursed out by cut and separated by animal and size: pork or beef, large or small. You choose between boneless short ribs with king oyster mushrooms or fat-capped rib eye, marinated pork collar, or shavings of sweet and spicy pork belly. All of it is remarkable.
The kitchen soars with the chef's keen oversight — and this despite his seeming confinement within the corporate shackles that circumscribe the menu (you'll find no greenmarket specials here). Deuki (pronounced "duke"), who also put in time with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, looks a bit like a pre-bad-boy Bieber, lustrous bangs and all. It's clear that he and his team have big plans for Korean food in America. And while they might not have the Canadian cheese doodle's global reach just yet, this location — on 32nd Street in the heart of Manhattan's Koreatown — consistently commands two-hour waits. During primetime, throngs jam up the restaurant's front entrance and lines form merely to add names to the waiting list. (A small bar in the downstairs dining room offers quaffable respite for a lucky few.) Service is attentive until things get busy, at which point the "call" button installed at each table becomes useless. On weekends the restaurant stays open from before noon until dawn. Impatient eaters should try their luck at off hours.
If Kwak, a Korean-American businessman who owns an events company and a K-pop nightclub and had a hand in the BAMN! automat on St. Marks Place back in the mid-Aughts, has his way, gochujang chile paste might just replace sriracha as the Asian hot sauce du jour. Koreatown was developed by first-generation Koreans, many of whom haven't changed their sourcing methods to reflect changing palates — though Kwak acknowledges that he'd be unable to do what he's doing had they not paved the way. To him, Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong and Deuki Hong represent an evolution of America's Korean food embracing modern dining's ideals. Introducing New Yorkers to Baekjeong is an intrepid, calculated way to launch this flavorful campaign.
Aside from the superlative meats, which have Instagramming foodies salivating like paparazzi over a glimpse of Kardashian behind, there are drinking foods like pajeon; thick pancakes filled with scallions and seafood; and yukhoe, coarsely chopped beef tartare folded with matchsticks of Asian pear and topped with a wobbly egg yolk. Deuki's noodles and stews showcase his ability, with both stringy egg (with chopped squid) and chewy, translucent rice noodles radiating from the fermented heat of gochujang. And don't be alarmed if you see your server flailing his arms about — he's probably mixing up dosirak. Also known as a Korean lunchbox, the messy, interactive dish forcibly combines rice, kimchi, and a fried egg into something approaching punk-rock bibimbap.
In Los Angeles, home to the largest Koreatown in the country, Baekjeong ranks as one of the best restaurants of its kind. The same is true in Flushing and now, thanks to the efforts of Deuki Hong and crew, at this crown jewel in Manhattan. Even coming from a comedian, this is seriously good food.
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