Saturday was the one-year anniversary of Anthony Bourdains’ death. As is the case with many Saturdays lately, I had a food tour of downtown Flushing’s Chinatown scheduled. What I like to call America’s Greatest Chinatown remains my most popular culinary adventure. It’s a good thing I love the neighborhood and its food, although leading tours does present such challenges as navigating crowded streets and the occasional guest who arrives an hour late because they thought the tour was in Manhattan’s Chinatown. At the end of most tours I treat myself to a dessert, sometimes even a full meal.
After Saturday’s tour I was in need of something, but I wasn’t quite sure what, maybe dessert, maybe company, maybe an answer to why Bourdain and others are no longer around, so I took a long walk down Northern Boulevard.
On the corner of Northern and 154th Street in the heart of the vast swath of Korean businesses that I like to call K-tropolis, a new one caught my eye. “Noryangjin Fish Market Center,” read the awning above nine photographs of seafood that took up the bottom half of the windows. The name led me to believe it was a Korean fish market, but it turns out it’s a Korean restaurant named for a very famous seafood market in Seoul. Years ago I took Bourdain and his pal Eric Ripert to a similar restaurant of the same name for san nakji or live octopus.
At the back of the spacious dining room were several large tanks filled with abalone, octopus, and other aquatic delicacies. These days, I think of the wriggling live octopus as a novelty food and tend not to seek it out, but I still love other Korean seafood, in particular the briny alien looking meongge or sea squirt. So when my eye fell upon meongge bibimbap, I knew I’d be back and tucked a takeout menu in my pocket. I was halfway out the door when I turned around and walked to a table and sat down and ordered the sea squirt bibimbap. “This is squid,” the waitress said pointing to the right most of three dishes of banchan. While I was tucking into a miso soup I saw the waitress bringing over a bowl.
“Wow that’s really fast for bibimbap,” I thought. When she brought it over I realized why it came out so quickly. Rather than a sea squirt version of bibimbap—the rice in the stone pot with the crusty toasted bottom—it was meongge hoe dup bap. Slivers of cucumber; seaweed; lettuce; strands of daikon; red onion;and the star of the show, the orange flesh of the sea squirt all crowned by a heap of flying fish roe topped a massive bowl of rice. I added some hot sauce mixed the whole lot up and dug in.
Spicy, briny, and refreshing it was just the thing after a longish afternoon of heavier food and hours of being “on.” Mussels in broth proved quite restorative as well. Halfway through the gigantic bowl of rice, I took a peek at the tanks. One contained a bunch of grayish wriggling creatures, I’d never seen. “I don’t know how to say it in English,” the waitress said when I asked what they were.
“They are called dog penis,” my friend Sung said when I sent her a photo. “I’m a little disappointed that there wasn’t much giggling when I asked the waitress and the fishmonger what it was called,” I replied.
“Indeed. It’s normal for them I guess. I find it hilarious,” she shot back. “It’s been a year since Bourdain went away. What a perfect conversation this is.” Uncle Tony would have ordered them I thought to myself.
I proceeded to tell her that I was going to work on an essay that night about Bourdain that “had been brewing in my soul.” This is not that piece. Afterwards I went and had two more treats, one that I like to imagine Bourdain would have pooh-poohed, a cold brew coffee soft serve, and the other that he would have dug, nice well-rounded cigar.
Noryangjin Fish Market Center, 154-01 Northern Blvd., Flushing, 917-563-7425