Sometimes I feel like David Chang inside.
If you’ve read Anthony Bourdain’s The Nasty Bits or seen the Parts Unknown episode of Koreatown, you know what I’m talking about.
I’m an adopted Korean who knows very little about what it means to be Korean except that people commented on my face a lot growing-up in suburban Minnesota, I got a white belt in tae kwon do in Korean Culture Camp, and I like Korean food. Last month I saw the episode of Parts Unknown: 24 Intoxicated Hours where Bourdain meet Nari in South Korea. They talked about Han & Jeong and suddenly my whole life made sense:
“Han, my favorite Korean word: It has many implied and specific meanings, but generally speaking, it’s a mixture of endurance, yearning, sorrow, regret, bitterness, spite, hatred, and a grim determination to bide your time until revenge can at last be enacted.” -Bourdain
Bourdain jokingly asked Nari if she’d wish vengeance on all of the people who used to make fun of the Korean lunches she brought to school. She replied that her greatest vengeance would be that they would have to think about that time they made fun of her and hopes they love Korean food now.
This weekend, it was my pick for date night and I chose Korean food. We waffled between a couple local restaurants and ultimately chose Asian Kitchen. I wasn’t craving Korean fusion or Korean with an upscale twist, but the kind of food we found at Dong Yang which tasted like someone’s mother or grandmother just prepared. Thanks to Whiskey Soba for restaurant suggestions!
Asian Kitchen is located along a stretch of Olive Blvd, home to many Asian restaurants and shops. The restaurant is unassuming on the outside and warm and comfortable on the inside. To start, we shared a bottle of soju ($14). Its crisp and smooth like saki, except that it’s stronger.
Jake enjoys ordering foods he’s never tried before and ordered the Dukbokki made with Korean rice cake, fish cake slices and a sweet and spicy chili sauce. In hindsight, we had no idea we’d receive so much banchan and barely made a dent in this dish. The rice cake tubes are chewy and dense and very filling. We especially liked the tangy chili sauce.
All of this made for excellent leftovers the next day, but, as word of warning, the rice cakes become rubber eraser-like when cold, so you might want to heat them up.
Our server began to set bowls of banchan on our table and we curiously watched as he started at the far corner of our table. Soon, our entire table was covered in banchan. I had seen Asian Kitchen advertise that they give guests about 15 types of banchan at each meal, but was shocked to see we each received our own set of 15.
We always seemed to receive about five-six small dishes of banchan at the restaurants we dined at in Minnesota, no matter if we were in a party of two or a party of five. I think we could have received banchan refills if we had asked, but no one ever offered them to us and we were too Minnesota-nice to ask.
The banchan spread at Asian Kitchen made feel giddy. In between bites of our entrees, we nibbled on marinated mushrooms, pickled radish, bok choy, neat cubes of pancake and omelet, seaweed salad, fish cake, marinated tofus, crunchy bean sprouts, and kimchi, of course. Nothing tasted stale and everything tasted fresh.
The pork dishes we ordered tasted kissed by char. Asian Kitchen is one of several Korean restaurants in town that offer tabletop grilling. This time around we let the kitchen cook our entrees, but hope to try the tabletop experience soon.
Jake’s favorite dish is spicy pork bulgogi. It arrived extra spicy as requested. The plump slices of meat were marinated through and through and lacked any gristle or fat. On the other hand, my pork belly slices were ideally fatty. The fat ribbon had a firm, almost crisp bite.
“Would you life refills of anything?” asked the young man, pointing at our spread of banchan. We thought he was joking and I started to laugh until we realized that his offer was quite serious. We declined refills and asked for the bill which arrived with these tiny, chilled drinks that tasted like yogurt and orange creamsicles. Jake also grabbed a couple Korean, melon-flavored hard candies from the bar where he paid the bill.
Each of our pork dishes cost about $16. Prices are reasonable considering portion sizes and the incredible spread of banchan. Our server’s friendliness and all of these special touches made us feel doted on.
Hot chili, garlic, more hot chili and charred pork fat; I want to be fueled by these things.
If you want to try to cook Korean at home, check out Maangchi’s blog.