The K-town in Manhattan with its abbreviated strip of Korean restaurants along West 32 Street pales in comparison to the vast K-tropolis that runs east along Northern Boulevard for hundreds of blocks. Ground zero for this Korean culinary wonderland is Mokja Golmok or Eater’s Alley, which surrounds the Murray Hill LIRR station. I’ve eaten at many of the places that ring the rail depot, Ma Po Korean BBQ for savory short rib kalbi and Nolbu Food for the Korean take on sushi known as kimbap and the blood sausage soondae.
One place I’ve never tried until very recently is Jeonju Korean Restaurant. I’ve passed it for years, so when a friend raved to me about the 17-year old restaurant’s gamjatang, or spicy pork spine stew I happily agreed to meet him there for a bowl.
I’d only eaten the gamjatang at Geo Si Gi, so I was curious to see why he thought Jeonju’s gamjatang was so special. After munching on some banchan and rice, the bubbling minicauldron of pork bone stew was brought to the table.
The first thing I noticed was a pinkish powder coating the huge chunks of pork spine and ribs. The powder turned out to be nutty ground perilla seeds, or deulkkae-garu. Seasoned with ginger, copious amounts of red pepper, and garlic among other things, the slow cooked stew eats like an especially sinus-clearing Korean pork ragu. Potatoes and cabbage round out the hearty potage. The best part—as usual with such dishes—was gnawing the meat off the bones.
The recipe for Jeonju’s gamjatang comes from Eunhae Bae, family matriarch and head chef, who hails from Jeonju, South Korea, a city so renowned for its traditional Korean home cooking that it’s been recognized by UNESCO. Mrs. Bae also grows vegetables for the restaurant, including perilla leaves. When fermented, the leaves take on a blackish color and their licorice notes increase exponentially. Mrs. Bae’s daughter, Sophia seemed surprised that the intensely flavored leaves were among my favorite of Jeonju’s banchan.
On a subsequent visit Sophia insisted I try her Mom’s samgyetang. I’m a huge fan of the chicken ginseng soup. Unlike other versions I’ve had, Jeonju’s is more of a porridge than a soup thanks to the addition of glutinous rice to the broth. The chicken itself is stuffed with ginseng, gingko nuts, garlic, brown glutinous rice, white glutinous rice, chestnuts, and dates among other things. I like to add a bit of salt to my samygyetang, though truth be told Jeonju’s is so hearty it doesn’t really need it.
Chef Bae’s samgyetang is a restorative comfort food of the highest order. Samgyetang is great in the winter, but it’s renowned in Korea as a dish to restore energy during the dog days of summer. And not just any dog days either but three specific ones: Chobok, July 17; Jungbok, July 27; and Malbok, August 16.
The latter happens to have been my dear departed father’s birthday. I think I’ll honor the man who taught me to love Asian food with a bowl of samgyetang at Jeonju this year.
Jeonju Korean Restaurant, 40-11 150th St. Flushing, 718-939-0434