When I travel abroad, if I have the opportunity I’ll usually try out the quality of the local Korean restaurants. Often, as when I was in Germany in May, the Korean menus are easier to understand than those in the local restaurants, and I’m always on the look-out for opportunities to initiate colleagues into the wonders of Korean flavours.
When it comes to Manhattan, people in the know say that if you want decent Korean food you should try in New Jersey instead. Informative advice in its way, but not if you don’t feel inclined to travel to the next State for a leisurely meal after work before you retire to your mid-town hotel. My choices of Korean restaurants in New York have therefore been governed by what’s been close at hand rather than anything more scientific. Korea Palace for example, on 54th Street between Park and Lexington, is midway between my old workplace and the Imaginasian cinema, and provides a good post-film spicy fix on the walk back to the hotel. Kumgangsan on the other hand (which was rather disappointing on my last visit) is probably the closest eating house to my usual K-town rendezvous of Koryo Books. And if you’re caught in the middle of one of New York’s monsoon-like downpours you really don’t want to walk too far for your food.
I wouldn’t hold out London has having anything to compare with what you can get in Korea, but until recently the very best Korean food I’ve had in London / New Malden is better than what I’ve had in New York.
So while I was in Manhattan last month I was keen to explore other restaurants to find new benchmarks to compare, and fortunately I had just discovered a Korean work colleague in our New York office to ask for some inside knowledge. I mentioned to her my unhappy experience two years ago, where my doenjang jjigae tasted as if it was a blend of tinned oxtail and French onion soup. Her first comment in return was “I never have jjigae in K-town as I can make it better at home”. So I knew that any recommendation she gave would carry a certain weight. Her second comment was to make those recommendations.
Her thoughts were:
- Wonjo for Hoedeopbap (회덮밥) (raw fish mixed with salad and a runny gochujang sauce)
- Kang Suh (full name 강서회관) for Nakji bokeum 낙지볶음 (spicy stir-fried octopus)
- BCD Tofu House for Soondubu jjigae (순두부 찌개) (seafood and soft tofu stew) (so I guess she does eat jjigae in K-town after all)
- Shilla for Japchae (잡채) & bibimbap (비빔밥)
- Kumgangsan, but only for their naeng-myeon (냉면) (cold noodles in a cold spicy soup)
That gave me plenty of options. And when I met up with the amazing food blogger Maangchi one evening, I went to Wonjo. It seems that Wonjo is the current flavour of the month in K-town – whenever I walked past it there was a queue of people waiting for a table: obviously a good recommendation in itself. I had no complaints with their Hoedeopbap and went home very full, with news of Maangchi’s upcoming YouTube-supported world tour.
Next, browsing around K-town one Saturday afternoon on the way back from the galleries in the lower West side I popped into Kang Suh, on the south side of 32nd Street at the Broadway end: a cheap and cheerful looking place downstairs where I was sitting (formica tables gave a feeling of a basic diner rather than a posh restaurant), though most of the locals seemed to march upstairs. A good spicy cold noodle dish was what I wanted, and that is what I got.
A few days later, a couple of non-Koreans wanted me to guide them round a Korean menu, so back to K-town we went. The queue outside Wonjo was looking a bit long, so we tried Shilla and were not disappointed. It’s a busy restaurant, but they have three floors so they’ll easily fit you in. I selected a mainstream menu – seafood pancake, fried dumplings, tteokbokki, samgyeopsal, jumulleok, soondubu jjigae, and, because my guests were still feeling a little peckish, a dolsot bibimbap to round things off. A bountiful dining experience (the soondubu jjigae was particularly good) accompanied by a couple of jugs of beer and some soju which came to $213 for the three of us (around £46 each – maybe around London prices), and we left for our yi-cha well satisfied.
Finally, on my last day in Manhattan, my Korean work colleague took me back to K-Town for lunch, and she offered Korean-Chinese fusion at Shanghai Mong, in the form of noodles (as if I wasn’t already stuffed full from the night before). After some sweet and sour fried chicken to start with, we had the house speciality: Half-half noodle (짬짜면) is served in a dish divided down the middle, and is designed to cater to indecisive customers who can’t make up their mind between Jjajangmyeon (짜장면) (noodles in black bean sauce) and Jjambbong (짬뽕) (seafood noodle stew). Have a half portion of each. Excellent.
One thing I did notice though: prices seem to have gone up since I last visited – and that’s nothing to do with the £/$ exchange rate.
If anyone has other recommendations, please let me know by leaving a comment below.
- Wonjo, 23 W 32nd St, www.wonjo32.com (website no longer working)
- Kang Suh, 1250 Broadway at 32nd St, www.kangsuh32.com
- BCD Tofu House, 17 W 32nd St, www.bcdtofu.com
- Shilla, 37 W 32nd St, www.shillanyc.com
- Kumgangsan, 49 W 32nd St, www.kumgangsan.net
- Korea Palace, 127 E 54th St, www.koreapalaceny.com/
- Shanghai Mong, 30 W 32nd St (no website)