A glance at the glittering profusion of Korean restaurants arrayed along Northern Boulevard induces despair. Which one to choose? There are dozens between Union Street and Utopia Parkway, all similarly convivial and festooned with strings of tiny white lights and neon Korean characters. I’ve tried several, and they fall roughly into four categories: the sprawling 24-hour complexes offering multipage compendia of Korean dishes; the smaller specialty places, sometimes featuring Chinese or Japanese food modified for Korean tastes; the neighborhood bars providing finger foods like raw pork belly and shucked oysters to line the stomachs of their hard-drinking patrons; and the tiny snack shops or bakeries.
The second type is often your best bet. Since each boasts a particular specialty, the reasoning goes, it’s bound to be good, right? So it was that we turned car toward curb when we spotted Korean barbecue Lee Park Sa. The list of five grillables was laughably short, and—we noted with some disappointment—the barbecuing would be done with gas rather than charcoal. Nevertheless, two of the things we ate were so deliriously good that this small rustic establishment has become a Flushing favorite.
Even if you’re familiar with the wildly expensive upper ranges of beefdom, leebarksa teuk kalbi ($18.95) will make your jaw drop—20 miniature boxcars of meat, so varicose with fat that we feared they would burst into flames the moment they hit the domed grill. It didn’t happen, but as tallow melted into meat, an amazing flavor developed—part smoke and part well-aged beef, helped along by the dipping sauce of soy, chile, and vinegar.
The beef disappeared in about three minutes, and we were still playing with the surfeit of little free dishes called pan chan when another stunner arrived. This one came from the short list of soupy casseroles in flame-warmed chafing dishes, boiling furiously as they’re served. Put out the fire or you’ll leave the restaurant with a scalded tongue. Nakji kpchang jungol ($29.95) might be mistaken for Texas chili—a scarlet, pepper-laced broth bobbing with beige tidbits. The inclusions, however, would never be found in the trans-Pecos: honeycombed pork stomach, wobbly small intestines, baby octopus tentacles, and mushroom matchsticks. These caused a couple of non-omnivores to wrinkle their noses and remove an item or two from the repertoire. Hey, put them in my bowl, please!
Strategically located at the southern gateway to Washington Heights, a venerable hill-country carryout does wonderful chicken and little else. The bird has been thoughtfully marinated in garlic and citrus—a variation on Cuban mojo—then deep-fried to a sienna brown. The chicken is made fresh all day long, so it’s never stale and limp, and the shoestring fries are an adequate foil. Kudos to the friendly and talented staff at NEW CAPORAL FRIED CHICKEN (3772 Broadway, 212-862-8986) for making a product that people drive miles to get, and who can resist the logo: a beaming chick in a cowboy outfit brandishing a six-shooter?
Closet-sized UNCLE SAL’S RIBS AND BIBS (1770 East Tremont Avenue, Bronx, 718-892-8181) crams more types of food into its well-organized premises than Aunt Sally could imagine. A couple of tables under the curious mountain landscape (this part of the Bronx is especially flat, unlike territories to the west) provide functional comfort as you chow down on the borough’s best baby-back ribs. Moistened with a kicky red sauce and falling apart the minute you touch them, they made me think a smoker was concealed somewhere. Also available: tacos, bacon-and-cheese fajitas (huh?), hamburgers, milk shakes, fish dinners, good fries, even Latin selections like salt-cod stew and steak with onions.