The stretch of Northern Boulevard winding east from Flushing and into Murray Hill could be called the K-Town of Queens. It’s flush with Korean businesses, including some of the best spots in the city for Korean barbecue, roiling seafood hot pots, and kimchis ranging from fresh and crisp to dense and funky. Though just out of reach of the 7 train (unless you don’t mind walking a mile or two), these restaurants are well worth the extra fare to take the LIRR to Broadway, where you’ll be deposited right in the thick of it.
On the busy blocks immediately surrounding the train station, a restaurant like Joah is easily overlooked. It’s not as large or as conspicuous as neighbors like Sik Gaek, the sprawling seafood restaurant flashing the face of Anthony Bourdain (a fan) across its LED sign, and it does not offer any of the more traditional Korean dishes that are often the draw here. It doesn’t even serve banchan (the array of tiny side dishes usually presented at the beginning of a meal), which, as Joah general manager Lana Kang tells the Voice, “is craziness.”
What Joah does serve is a version of Korean comfort food that borrows some of its heartiest elements from America, Japan, and even Italy. Cheese features heavily; pasta and breaded pork cutlets play a supporting role. “I would call ourselves modernized Korean food for any type of person,” says Kang. She puts Joah among a handful of other newish Korean restaurants — including Her Name Is Han and Five Senses, both in Manhattan’s Koreatown — that are “reaching out to the second generation of Korean Americans.” This younger set, Kang says, knows and likes Mom’s cooking but is drawn to something “cooler.”
Joah’s dining room, a sparse whitewashed space sweetly strung with sprays of dried flowers, could almost be taken for a daytime café, but the pitchers of cocktails on the menu indicate otherwise. These tipples (all also available by the glass) are mostly soju-based and invariably brightly colored and sweet, adorned with paper straws, umbrellas, and lemon slices entombed within ice cubes — a clear draw for the young people Joah aims to please.
The food, meanwhile, will please anyone deep into one of those pitchers. These are drinking dishes — junk food of the highest order. Take, for example, the bacon-studded kimchi fried rice, which is served in a hot skillet, topped with a fried egg, and surrounded by a bubbling moat of melted mozzarella and corn. When mixed all together it becomes a kind of over-the-top casserole. A crust of fried cheese forms along the bottom of the pan, and every forkful trails gooey strands to rival a Domino’s commercial.
The kimchi fried rice, like a pitcherful of blue soju cocktail, is best when shared. So are many of Joah’s best dishes, which come in portions too large and rich for any one person to handle. Such is the case with the mayo rice, which is, delightfully enough, exactly what it sounds like. A large pile of fried rice comes crosshatched with squiggles of either plain or spicy mayonnaise (get the spicy), topped with one of three proteins: Spam, tuna salad, or mentaiko (pollock roe). The tuna salad makes for a surprisingly pleasant combination of textures, the sort of dish you realize you could have been making for last-ditch dinners at home all this time if only you’d thought of it. Still, with its salty punch of flavor, the mentaiko rendition was my favorite.
There are some more traditional Korean dishes on the menu — e.g., bulgogi — but there are also Italian-ish pastas in tomato or cream sauce, as well as Japanese offerings. “Traditional,” anyway, is relative. The pastas were only added because of popular demand, Kang tells the Voice, but Japanese items have been a part of Korean cuisine since at least the Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the twentieth century. As a result, the katsu you’ll find at Joah is different from the typical Japanese variety. Rather than a shattery panko crust, this fried pork chop bears a denser, double-fried breading, as crisp and flavorful as the best takeout chicken fingers. Get it as an entrée topped with sweet Japanese curry sauce or cheese or find it on the mansour plate, a combination platter of katsu, kimchi fried rice, a meatloaf-like “hamburger steak,” and sides. At $27, the latter is a splurge compared to the majority of the menu, which ranges from $10 to $15, and should only be an investment for the indecisive.
Of all the dishes at Joah, the budae jjigae, or “army stew,” may be one of the most familiar and true to form for fans of Korean food. It’s a classic version of the hearty soup that originated around the end of the Korean War, when the only foods not scarce were American military rations. Sliced hot dogs, batons of Spam, processed ham, and instant ramen noodles figure prominently but are combined into something greater than the sum of their parts by a broth made rich and spicy courtesy of gochujang and kimchi. This bowl, bubbling over a Sterno flame, links the “modern” things Joah does with cheese and mayonnaise and fried pork chops to a feat Korean cuisine has achieved before: turning junk food into really delicious junk food.