Monday, March 11, 2019

Manhattan's K-Town

I’m going to let you in on a secret: I am not a New Yorker. However, I visit on business (and occasionally pleasure) several times a year and always try to stay in the same hotel. Or at least in the same neighborhood--Koreatown. This little one-block square area in Midtown Manhattan runs from 5th Avenue to Broadway and includes 31st and 32nd Streets, which actually makes the “block” a trapezoid. There’s a bit of spillover to the other side of 5th Ave, too. In any case, this compact area is studded with restaurants, bakeries, and bars, a handful of hotels, and is a convenient 2-block walk from Penn Station. That was the original selling point for me, the proximity to transportation, but after staying in the area a few times, I realized that if I were ever too busy to think about where to eat, I could have breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks without going very far in any direction. (Truthfully though, there has never been a time in my life that was too busy to exclude thoughts of food.) I also discovered that the alleged “city that never sleeps” does indeed roll up the sidewalks after dinner, at least in Midtown on a Monday night. On one occasion, I emerged from the Herald Square subway station at 1am after spending most of the evening elsewhere in the city. I was somewhat alarmed to realize that I was the only soul on the street. Fortunately, my hotel was nearby, in the middle of a block that is always busy, thanks to the surfeit of 24-hour Korean BBQ restaurants and late night karaoke bars.

Bibimbap at New Wonjo
 Among those 24-hour BBQ joints are The Kunjip, New Wonjo, and missKOREA, all on 32nd Street. missKOREA involves three floors of bbq, each with different decor and separate menus. The first floor has a somewhat naturalistic, hanging-out-in-the-forest, vibe, the second is more serene and modeled after traditional Korean study rooms, and the third floor is contemporary and spare. Diners have the option of ordering bbq both in set menus and a la carte, but also as part of multicourse feasts that include starters, a course of either hot pot or crepes served with meat and vegetables, the bbq main dish, a noodle or rice preparation, and dessert. The Kunjip and New Wonjo are both more casual restaurants with fairly straightforward menus that include stews, noodle dishes, and bibimbap as well as bbq cooked at the table.

Matcha latte at Grace Street
Three other restaurants, Gammeeok, Shanghai Mong, and Abiko Curry, are also open around the clock. Gammeeok specializes in seolleongtang, a rich soup made by simmering beef bones for many hours so all of the marrow, fat, calcium, and collagen are extracted, broken into tiny particles, and suspended in broth which turns a milky white, rather somewhat like tonkotsu ramen broth. They also serve bossam (braised pork belly, sliced and served with kimchi and usually cabbage leaves in which to wrap it), housemade sundae (blood sausage), and a few kinds of Korean pancakes. Shanghai Mong bills itself as an Asian Bistro; in addition to Korean dishes, they also serve pad Thai, udon, pho, and many Chinese-restaurant-style dishes like General Tso’s or sweet and sour chicken. If you like Japanese-style curry, and you like it spicy, you’ll probably enjoy Abiko Curry. Curry was introduced to Japan by the British, and it’s flavor is closer to the yellow-hued curry powder in your pantry than to that of Indian dishes like vindaloo or rogan josh, yet it’s also very much its own thing. Abiko simmers their curry for “100 hours” and offers a gravy-like version served with rice or noodles, and a thicker cream sauce mixed with pasta. Dishes can be customized with toppings like fried squid, raw eggs, pork cutlets, and cheese; the spiciness can also be ordered to taste, but be forewarned that even “level 2” packs some real heat. I like the donburi bowls, a mound of rice topped with some sauce, lots of sauteed onions, and a protein of your choosing. It’s not spicy at all but completely delicious.

Donburi at Abiko Curry
Several other BBQ joints dot the K-town landscape on both sides of 5th Avenue: Jongro; Her Name is Han; Dons Bogam; Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. All have more limited hours than the round-the-clock places, and each has its fans. On quite the opposite side of the spectrum; rather than piles of meaty goodness, mushrooms and tofu are the stars at Hangawi, the rare Korean vegetarian restaurant. They also have what might be the ultimate Instagrammer’s meal: a hot stone bowl filled with rice, vegetables, and...avocado. Beats avocado toast any day.

If you’re in the mood for something sweet, you’re in luck. Everything from green tea lattes to fancy French-style cakes can be found in Koreatown. My favorite bakeries are Tous Le Jours and Paris Baguette. The former has a wide variety of pastries, both familiar and not. Croissants are big and brown and beautiful, but the much more homely hot dog encased in a squid ink roll with cheese inside and out has its merits, too. There are also French baguettes and loaves of fluffy Korean milk bread, donuts, and flaky pastries filled with everything from red beans to chocolate to sausages. Paris Baguette has a smaller selection of similar products, plus fancier layer and roll-style cakes. Both bakeries offer specialty coffee drinks as well. More coffee can be found at Grace Street, an expansive cafe that has an equally large menu of hot and iced coffee and tea drinks, including matcha, milk tea, and cocoa. Grace Street also serves waffles with various toppings, and something called shaved snow, a light and feathery frozen dessert made from blocks of flavored ice milk shaved into silky ribbons.and topped with things like red beans, condensed milk, or mango puree. Across 5th Avenue one will find Besfren, a dessert shop with a much smaller selection of pastries, but also delicious giant triple chocolate chip cookies, matcha/taro swirl soft serve ice cream, and a selection of ginseng products. Only want tea? Gong Cha is a closet-sized space that serves a seemingly infinite number of hot and cold tea drinks in flavors like familiar Earl Grey and Oolong but also wintermelon and taro. Order your tea topped with simple milk foam, or with boba, red beans, basil seeds, coconut or herbal jelly, or pudding (somewhat like flan)...even with all of the above. Don’t forget to grab a wide straw to suck up all the solids, because a regular straw simply will not do the trick.

If you’re not sure what exactly you want to eat, step into Food Gallery 32, a food court where you’ll find everything from Korean fried chicken, bibimbap, and ddukbboki to the savory Chinese crepes called jianbing, churros, and frozen yogurt. Seating is communal and the place always seems crowded, but it’s great for the undecided among us.

Fried dumplings at Mandoo Bar
And that’s not all, folks. There are at least two gastropubs in K-town, Itaewon and Osamil, and restaurants specializing in fresh tofu (BCD Tofu House) and Korean dumplings (Mandoo Bar), plus a somewhat more fancy restaurant called Gaonnuri. Located on the 39th floor of 1250 Broadway, overlooking Herald Square, Gaonnuri has some of the best panoramic views of the city. They offer both tableside bbq and entrees like bibimbap, but also fish dishes involving black cod, sea bass, and monkfish. I like the seasonal tasting menu, which at $115 per person isn’t exactly a bargain, but it does include 6 savory courses and dessert. There’s also a more economical $55 three-course prix fixe that includes bbq, but the whole table must participate.

I’m sure I’ve missed more than a few places, but I hope I’ve hit on enough to lure you into a stroll through New York’s Koreatown. There’s no shortage of food (there’s even an H Mart if you are in the mood or have the ability to prepare a meal for yourself) in this relatively small area. Shops too, if you’re into Korean beauty products. It’s definitely a neighborhood worth a visit.

Posted on

No comments: