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Bo Ssäm Doesn’t Quite Bring Home the Bacon

A couple of months ago, I received a note out of the blue from Jicama, a family friend and almost-relative who I pretty much only see at various West Coast events. He lives in Berkeley, California, but he said he would be coming to New York for a few days and wanted me to join him and his friends for a meal. The meal he had in mind wasn’t just any meal. It was the much-raved-about bo ssäm at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Bo ssäm is Korean dish, consisting of an entire pork butt (which is actually the shoulder) rubbed in sugar and salt and cooked on low heat for about six hours. At Momofuku Ssäm, parties of eight to 10 people can order them in advance for a total price of $250. Needless to say, I was in. I asked if I could bring a friend and invited Dan Dan Noodle to join me.

Ten of us arrived at the restaurant at around 5 pm, apparently the only time slot they had open for a large group. I had to take off early from work, but it’s the excitement of meals like this that reminds me why I work to begin with. The others in the group were mostly Jicama’s classmates from his not-too-distant undergraduate days at Brown. Indeed Dan Dan and I were by far the oldest, but there is nothing like a big piece of pork to unite the generations. We were seated at one of the larger tables, and the pork accompaniments soon began to arrive, including a platter of oysters. The pork would be falling off the bone, so we were to eat it with a little bit of rice, wrapped in some butter lettuce and topped with condiments. It is apparently also traditional to eat oysters alongside the meat in the little lettuce packets.

The lettuce was delivered as a lovely whole head, and it came with a variety of sauces, including two kinds of kimchi, scallion-ginder sauce and ssäm sauce, made with vinegar and fermented bean and chili pastes. When the meat arrived, our appetites had been whetted. Glistening and caramelized, the pork looked like heaven on a plate. We pulled off moist, tender chunks with tongs, assembled our little bundles and dug in. The lettuce was crisp, the sauces were vibrant, and the meat was rich and flavorful. But there was something lacking. It’s not that the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the meat was disappointing, it’s just that it became a little monotonous. I found myself wanting more texture in each bite. I wanted the charred edges and chew that you get with Korean barbecue.

With 10 ravenous people, even a huge hunk of meat goes quickly. Luckily for Dan Dan, who couldn’t reach the platter, I was somewhat aggressive in making sure we both got some meat before it was gone. For eight people, this might have been a huge meal, but for 10 it was moderate. I wasn’t starving, but I had been prepared to be much more full. All in all, I was grateful for the opportunity to sample such a delectable treat with an interesting group of people, but if pressed, I think I would probably pick a barbecue place in K-Town or Flushing over the Momofuku bo ssäm for my next large-group Korean feast. I prefer to come to David Chang’s restaurants for his innovative dishes like fried shrimp tails or chili soft-shell crab with tomatillo and mole. That is unquestionably where he shines. For everything else, there are traditional cooks throughout the city that can prepare a more pleasant feast at a similarly modest price.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003
Reservations for bo ssäm are here.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

Octopying Queens, One Tentacle at a Time

When it comes to food, there is pretty much nothing I wouldn’t try eating at least once. And when it comes to blogging about it, the wackier the better. So when I heard about Sik Gaek, a Korean restaurant in Woodside, Queens that serves live octopus, known as sannakji, I knew I would have to try it. I heard about the restaurant from my friend, Dan Dan Noodle, who arranged a bachelor party there for his buddy, a former vegan. Needless to say this poor guy was traumatized for life by the experience of eating something that was still moving on the plate. In fact, he told me he recently, only half-jokingly, that he continues to have nightmares about it. This sounded like a fitting challenge for my trusted crew of hardcore eaters and me. I rounded up Dan Dan, Imperial Stout, Bagel with Lox, Oyster and my friend Mascarpone. Mascarpone brought along a friend who was visiting from Chicago, and Dan Dan brought his friends, Sgt. Pepperjack and Megabite. We were nine in all, putting us just above what I would consider the minimum group size (a one-person-to-one-tentacle ratio) necessary to tackle a meal here.

We were seated at a large wooden booth, partially tucked away behind a slatted screen. In the center of the restaurant, near the front were tanks filled with abalone and other sea creatures. We ordered bottles of plum wine, shochu and Obi and then set about determining what to eat. While Sik Gaek is best known for its octopus, the restaurant doesn’t always have it in stock. Anxious to prevent disappointment, I had called ahead of time and learned that Tuesdays and Thursdays are the days the octopuses are delivered. I dutifully scheduled our visit for a Thursday night. After having watched a clip of Anthony Bourdain and David Chang eating at the restaurant on Bourdain’s show “No Reservations,” we knew we had to order the fresh octopus hot pot, known as sannakji chulpan. But we didn’t want to stop there. Our server informed us that two octopuses came with the hot pot, so one could be served raw, as a celphalopodic sashimi of sorts. He also encouraged us to try the seafood pancake, and Imperial Stout suggested the rice cakes. We ordered all of these dishes and then dug into the eggs that servers had fried on our table while we waited.

The food began to arrive in short order, with the raw octopus and rice cakes leading the charge. To say that this octopus was still alive is slightly inaccurate; it was already cut into bite-sized pieces, which were scattered among whole cloves of garlic and slices of raw jalapeño. (Here is an example of eating an octopus that is actually alive.) But the octopus’s nervous system is a wondrous thing because those pieces were writhing around the plate, flipping jalapeños and latching on to garlic cloves. We were not deterred in the least. We popped these pieces into our mouths, dipping them first into one of two accompanying sauces and making sure to chew enough to guarantee the suckers didn’t enter our stomachs still twitching. The rice cakes, made with glutinous flour, had an interesting chew that reminded me of gnocchi. These came tossed with thin squares of fish cake and doused in a sweet-spicy red sauce made of Korean chili paste, garlic and scallions. The sauce took on a slightly funky fishy smell, which added complexity to the dish.

Next came the seafood pancake, which was replete with bright green scallions and large chunks of fresh seafood. Octopus tentacles protruded from one side. If our server hadn’t recommended we order this, I would likely have passed because I’ve tried pa jun so many times. But I would have been sorry if I hadn’t gotten to taste what was hands-down the best example of this dish I have ever had. It was crispy and not too greasy and really packed in a lot of high quality seafood. At some point, our server also brought over a complimentary platter of oysters on the half shell, which I thought were unremarkable, but which we all slurped down nonetheless.

Finally, it was time for the pièce de résistance: the fresh octopus hot pot. A team of servers deftly delivered a massive cauldron, filled with bubbling red broth and the largest pile of seafood I have ever dug into. “I don’t know if I’m at dinner or in a tidepool,” Sgt. Pepperjack quipped. On top of the mound of cherrystone and razor clams, shrimp, crabs, mussels, abalone and sea snails were the squirming tentacles of our second octopus and the flailing claw of a lobster. The lobster and the octopus duked it out for while as we watched in wonder and snapped photos on our phones. (“Let a [sic] octopus dance on a hot plate,” the menu had suggested.) We snapped up some pieces of still-wiggling octopus tentacle, but the movement in the platter soon began to die down. When that happened, our server returned with special scissors and set to work cutting everything into smaller pieces. We scooped and spooned the creatures and broth into our bowls, dredging up thick noodles beneath them. My first few bites of seafood were noticeably fresh and tender, although the broth didn’t seem to have much flavor of its own. As we worked our way to the bottom, however, the seafood, particularly the shrimp and clams, became increasingly overcooked. Such is the risk you run with hot pot.

Before embarking on this massive feat of consumption we noted that those tables that finished the hot pot could request that the broth be mostly drained and that fried rice with seaweed and roe be cooked in the same vessel. As we ate our way through the last of the seafood, it was fried rice or bust! We made it to the fried rice phase, and I’m sincerely glad we did. The rice took on some of the flavor from the broth, while the roe added a salty inflection, as well as an excellent textural dimension. I had thought I was full, but I gobbled up the rice and washed it down with one last sip of beer. I can’t say this was the best seafood I’ve ever eaten, but it was certainly among the most lively and exciting meals I can recall. When the food itself is dancing, it’s hard not to let your mood follow suit.

Sik Gaek
49-11 Roosevelt Ave.
Queens, NY 11377
718.205.4555
(another location in Flushing)

Sik Gaek on Urbanspoon

Sik Gaek on Urbanspoon

Mapo BBQ Birthday Bash

My birthday was last week. It wasn’t a particularly important one, but birthdays are too easily overlooked as one gets older. If you don’t take the time to properly celebrate, you get old before you know it. (Sigh!) Of course, it was also a good excuse to organize a feast at a Korean restaurant in Flushing, Queens that I had been wanting to try for a while: Mapo BBQ. Mapo is known in foodie circles for its top-notch kalbi, short ribs marinated in a sweet, garlicky soy sauce and grilled on metal racks set into the table. At most Korean barbecue restaurants, the meat is cooked over a gas flame, but at Mapo, my research revealed, servers insert baskets of hot coals in the canisters embedded in each table. That distinction alone was enough to intrigue me. One thing that should be noted, however, is that Mapo isn’t exactly cheap. It easily exceeds the typical Mango Lassie price range, but hey, it was my birthday. Luckily, I have devoted friends. I invited nearly 30 of them to come. About 10 or 12 of them said they couldn’t make it, which proved key to fitting our party into the small restaurant. In the end, we were 17, including Empanada Boy; my cousins Ketchup, Leftover Girl, Bagel with Lox and Black Cherry Soda; my friends Curly Fries, Dan Dan Noodle, Fry Girl, Imperial Stout and his visiting buddy; my college friends Beefsteak and Varenyky; my work friends Dagashi and Pale Ale, along with Pale Ale’s friend, and last, but not least, my dear old friend Onion. I called the restaurant a couple of times to try to make a reservation in advance but was never sure, based on the broken English of her response, that the person on the phone understood me. Thankfully, my friend Saltman’s mother-in-law, who is Korean-American, kindly called the restaurant for me the day before to confirm. We were all set.

Google maps had the wrong address in its records, so half of us got there 20 to 30 minutes late. As it turned out, though, that was right on time for our numerous tables to clear out and be pushed together along one side of the restaurant. In all, we had three burners on our combined megatable—perfect for even meat distribution. I took the liberty of ordering bottles of the Korean beer Hite and kalbi for all (five orders per burner). Then the banchon started coming. Banchan, the collective name for the little dishes of pickles, kimchi, vegetables and salads, are perhaps the best thing about a Korean meal. And the quality of the offerings at Mapo was a step above the norm. There was fresh, crunchy kimchi made with whole bok choy, agar(!) cakes with roasted chilies, earthy sauteed mushrooms, cold glass noodles with vegetables, sauteed water spinach with sesame seeds, thin triangles of tofu, charred corn kernels and stone pots of fluffy steamed egg custard. As soon as we finished one plate, it was scooped up and replenished. These dishes help offset the $29-per-order price tag for the kalbi.

A team of servers soon brought baskets of charcoal and grill racks to our table, along with luscious pink slabs of heavily marbled deboned rib meat. They also brought bibs so large they looked like mini aprons. Most of us decided to take our chance, but true to form, EB and Ketchup proudly donned their bibs. As the meat began to cook, the servers flipped it and deftly cut it into squares with scissors. While we waited for the meat to cook, the head server came over to explain in stilted English that she would be bringing around complimentary seafood scallion pancakes, known as pa jun. Cut into triangles, these were crispy and less greasy than many versions I’ve had and were heavily laden with bright green scallions. I felt my first pang of fullness after eating my wedge of pancake, but I quickly dismissed it. We hadn’t even started on the meat!

The meat was ready, and it only took one bite for my hunger to return. This kalbi was truly in a league of its own. Tender and deeply flavorful, it was like the Kobe of Korean barbecue. We wrapped chunks of the meat in bright green lettuce leaves, stuffing them with spicy kimchi and adding ssam jang, the traditional spicy-sweet Korean barbecue dipping sauce. About midway through this meaty decadence, servers delivered bubbling cauldrons of soondubu jjigae, a spicy broth filled with quivering, silken tofu.

At one point, Curly Fries asked Dan Dan Noodle how to properly contain the meat in the lettuce leaf so that it didn’t fall out. Dan Dan explained that his method involved basically crumpling it all together, stuffing it into his mouth and hoping for the best. This is a pretty accurate description of my method, and it proved efficient for most of the rest of the table as well. We finished off the meat in relatively short order, with one end of the table snagging some extra meat from the other. Thinking we had all but completed our monumental task, we were soon surprised to find we were mistaken. Before our chopsticks had time to hit our plates, the army of servers descended again with three complimentary bowls of vegetable-packed bibimbap. I prefer bibimbap served in a hot stone dish so the bottom of the rice hardens like the sofrito in the center of a paella and the egg cooks as it’s mixed in. This bibimbap was served at room temperature, but it was tasty nonetheless. I downed a couple bowlfuls before reaching my limit.

Suddenly the lights dimmed and my friends started hushing each other. One of the servers carried a plate bearing a wedge of cheesecake with two candles in it. Happy birthday music piped in from somewhere started up. There was no singing on the recording, but it was one of the most hilarious renditions of the song I’ve heard. The music sped up and slowed down when you least expected it, and the shifting rhythms made it difficult for my friends to sing along. Imperial Stout described it well when he said he kept thinking it was the introduction and that the music was about to launch into the actual song. It never did, but the Korean waitstaff had no trouble joining in. They brought out the rest of the cheesecake, and Fry Girl did her best to dish it up to everyone using the butter knife they gave her. Not being a huge fan of cheesecake, I passed mine along to someone else. There was still bibimbap left in the serving bowls, and some of the more valiant eaters were not about to let it go to waste: “I’m still on savory,” Dan Dan Noodle said.

Indeed, I preferred to leave Mapo BBQ with the taste of roasted garlic, kimchi and that heavenly kalbi still foremost on my palate. It was a glorious birthday feast and an excellent way to welcome another year. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I would like to add that I am truly grateful that I have friends and relatives who would trek out to Flushing and shell out a not insignificant amount of cash to share this meat-filled moment with me.

Mapo BBQ
149-24 41st Ave.
Flushing, NY 11355
718.886.8292

Mapo BBQ on Urbanspoon