Um… that was delicious!
In a previous, whiny post, I mentioned going with HCB to a Korean restaurant. In that post, I was, shall we say, less than full-throated in my endorsement. I really just didn’t want to complain any more than I already had. It wasn’t all that bad… it was just boring. The meat was admittedly delicious, but we can’t expect to survive off short ribs for the next five years. The pan chan (Korean snackies) were good enough, but the kimchee soup was just spicy, soggy cabbage. It’s one thing to find a cuisine alienating; it’s another thing to find it totally unremarkable. This meal triggered in me a creeping dread. Can I really eat this kind of food every day? There was nothing playful. Nothing surprising. Just heat and the gaminess of fermentation. Why am I revisiting this experience? More whining? Nope; there will be no apologetic postscript added to this entry. I am rehashing that anemic review because, in trying to figure out if I like Korean food, there’s new and important data that needs considering: yesterday, we had an INCREDIBLE Korean meal.
My friends, Scott and Susie, wanted to celebrate our departure and get some experience with Korean food (they plan to visit us!), so we took the opportunity to expand our culinary sample pool. With the help of Yelp, we found Jang Mo Jip and jumped in the car. (Normally, I would edit out the details at this point in my story, but arriving at the restaurant offered a moment of triumph worth mentioning.) We followed my phone to the location listed on Yelp, but when we arrived at our destination, there seemed to be no trace of any “Jang Mo Jip.” Had Yelp and/or Google Maps led us astray? The building we’d pulled up to seemed, at one point, to have been a hotel that was converted into a series of offices. What, when it was a hotel, would have been the front office was instead a business of unknown trade. The windows were mostly blacked out and everything of importance was written in Korean. The sign on the door read:
Here comes the triumph part! Thanks to all the studying I’ve been doing over the past couple days, I was able to translate the sign! I know the Korean alphabet well enough to sound out the name of a restaurant! That means I’m fluent, right? I’m pretty much the most amazing person I’ve ever met. Self-congratulting myself all the while, we happily entered 장모집.
The food, it was a riot of flavor. For the sake of science, we ordered liberally: a cook-it-yourself barbecue plate; spicy fried chicken; seafood soup with tofu; broiled mackerel. I’m nothing if not systematic, so let’s do this nice and slow…
Of all the food that arrived, the barbecue had the steepest learning curve. The staff brought us a large portable gas grill and a platter covered in thinly sliced meat. Accompanying that abundance were: thinly sliced green onions tossed in oil, salt and spicy-something; a salty, fermented bean paste; sesame oil; and a bowl of large lettuce leaves. The Korean diners loaded up their grills with onions and meat, tending to things as they talked with family and friends; we, as the only white people in the restaurant, were not allowed to cook without a watchful Korean chaperone. For this we were both thankful and distantly embarrassed. (Susie compared the experience to sitting at the desk closest to the principle’s office, an apt description.) But the meat was cooked properly, and well-cooked pork belly goes a long way to soothing a bruised ego. Of the three meats offered by or combo meal, the pork belly was by far the best. It was tender and juicy, while the beef was drier and less flavorful. But when combined with the bean paste and wrapped in lettuce, the result was phenomenal. Salty and meaty, but fresh and crunchy. Delicious.
Shockingly, the spicy fried chicken was not like anything you’d find at KFC. The coating was thick and pasty, a little sweet, but more spiced than spicy. Our best guess at decoding the mystery was that tamarind paste was the base into which other ingredients were added. Rather than being sticky with corn syrup, the chicken, although sweetened, remained somehow satisfyingly savory. The breading was thick and crunchy, although crispness was sacrificed to prevent sauce-related soggification. It fell short of the revelation that is Bon Chon Chicken (GO!), but it fulfilled perfectly some ancestral instinct to crunch bones. In the best way possible! It’s a strange thing to say, but something about that breading and the deep red paste smeared on everyone’s hands and faces… it was joyous. Fingers were licked and bones were cleaned.
I. Loved. The. Soup. Although, I was alone at the table in thinking that. The broth was thin in consistency but thick in flavor. To the ubiquitous Korean spiciness were added mussels and shrimp, which, to me, felt nourishing in the extreme. Then there was the tofu. Anyone who knows my gustatory habits will know that tofu is not a frequent guest at my table. I find it appealing in certain applications (FRIED), but usually I will opt for something heartier (and by heartier, I mean, less dreary). Not so, this tofu. It was positively buttery. And with the supporting role offered by the broth… I’m salivating as I type this. Salivating about seafood/tofu soup. That is an indication.
Finally, there was the mackerel. It was nothing fancy, but as a common item on Korean menus, I thought we should give it a shot. I was rewarded for my adventurousness. Do you notice that I did not say we? Yeah. HCB, as a life long hater of fish, has progress yet to make on that front. He tried it. But, like it, he did not. I LOVED it. The cut side of the fillet was an inviting golden brown that promised pan fried crispness. It did not disappoint. With just a squeeze of lemon, it was rich but clean on the pallet. As with everything offered at Jang Mo Jip, the mackerel made me feel… well, comforted. How weird is that?
I walked away from this meal elated. I can survive off this food. Yes, there will be days when I JUST WANT A HAMBURGER, PLEASE AND THANK YOU, but if the food in Seoul is of Jang Mo Jip’s caliber, I’ll be fine. I may, in fact, be quite the happy camper. There was so much exuberance in that meal. And, good lord, just imagine all the amazing food I’ll eat traveling through Asia?! I am excited.
HCB still has a lot of work ahead of him. I think what I felt was exuberant, he felt was threatening. Poor guy. If after a significant trial period he really can’t handle the fish flavor he can tell people he’s Buddhist (apparently there is a well-established tradition of vegan cuisine in Korea), but that means no fried chicken, so we’ll see. How much does he REALLY hate fish? Only time will tell. I, on the other hand, am a happy, eager omnivore. Thank you, Jang Mo Jip!
Nota Bene: I’m still adjusting to this whole blog thing. Only after we had demolished the meal did
I think someone remind me that photographic evidence is de rigueur in Blogland. Oops. I’ll do better next time. Let me guarantee you all that the food was BEAUTIFUL and MOUTHWATERING.