It’s hard to reconcile newspaper reports that the local Korean population is shrinking with the skyrocketing number of Korean restaurants in Queens. Along Northern Boulevard from Flushing’s Main Street all the way to Bayside, you’ll find a nearly unbroken double line of Seoul food spots, garishly decorated and brightly lit in hot competition for patrons. And this linear Koreatown is not just for barbecue and dumplings anymore—there are now a dozen micro-cuisines to choose from.
A little over a year ago I reported that a place called Lee Park Sa had carried Korean beef barbecue to its upper limits by specializing in Kobe-style beef, perfuming the air with the odor of smoking tallow. Now that joint has been replaced by Seoul Soondae, a chain with branches in Virginia and Maryland that offers another obscure Korean specialty. The front door is emblazoned with a smiling cartoon pig wearing a red muffler and a jaunty cap. Inside find a choice of seating—big semi-private booths, and, for yoga enthusiasts, even larger tables low to the floor that force diners to sit cross-legged on a platform that runs around the periphery.
Though the general theme of the menu is pig, this boils down—sometimes quite literally—to a pair of specialties first brought to Seoul by northern refugees during the Korean War, regarded by sophisticated residents of the South Korean capital as rough-hewn hillbilly food. One of these is soondae, a boiled sausage of pig blood and potato vermicelli ($10.95), encouragingly touted by the menu as “nourishing Korean sausage in small plate.” I can’t attest to the nourishing part, but “small” is a complete lie—the plate contains 30 thick pieces of sausage in infantry formation, sided with additional rows of pig ear, tongue, and heart, easily enough offal for four. Rich and bland simultaneously, the soondae is delicious, and even people who hate British blood pudding or French boudin noir are likely to take a shine to it, especially when it’s swished in the accompanying condiment of toasted sesame oil, black pepper, and rock salt. Still, this sausage stirs controversy among young Koreans. One disdainful blogger was moved to complain that soondae “smells like a week-old corpse in a hot room.”
The other rustic specialty is pig belly, an unsmoked, uncured, and prodigiously fatty cut of meat, similar in appearance to American bacon. Variations on this theme are the pride of the menu, but I leave it to aficionados to distinguish between the “three layer” and “five layer” belly. Though each is listed at $14.95, the restaurant insists that you place a double order. I guess the rigmarole justifies this rule, because the waitress brings a cooking contraption surmounted by a big stone griddle something like a sidewalk slate, tilted at an angle to allow the rendered fat to flow off as the meat cooks—and flow it will. Alongside the fragrant sizzling bacon she also cooks bean curd, onions, and—most strangely—vinegary kimchi. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that lard improves the flavor of all these substances. When cooked, the bacon slices are heaped with condiments—including hot green chiles, raw cloves of garlic, and tangy bean paste—then wrapped in lettuce leaves and eaten. After our culinary orgy was concluded, a friend scraped the charred bits off the stone and happily ate them.