"Axis of evil" status notwithstanding, North Korea, and South too, are actually very good when it comes to provoking a proliferation of potent flavors from their cuisine. This has been the case since the Sixteenth Century, when the Portuguese introduced the chili pepper and Koreans responded with a resounding "Woo!" Kyung Ju Restaurant in North Miami Beach imbues its food with a somewhat subdued woo, but the homestyle cooking still thrills with plenty of palate-kicking action.
The 135-seat restaurant is split into two dining areas separated by the aisle through which patrons enter. The pair of rooms mirror each other in simple Korean style, with blond wood partitions securing privacy for booths arrayed around the perimeter of the space, blond wood tables and chairs, and dark carpeting (that has seen better days) taking up the middle. Kyung Ju looks a bit like a sad sushi joint, but customers who have been congregating here for the past eleven years probably don't even notice; they come for the food.
Korean cuisine, like that of Japan, relies heavily on fish, rice, and pickles -- actually a little less on the fish (they like pork up North and beef down South), a lot more on the pickles. Most American diners have by now encountered the basic kimchi, prepared by fermenting heads of cabbage with a mix of coarse salt, chili pepper, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, and water. Turnips, cucumbers, radishes, and all manner of comestibles are also converted via variously seasoned brines. At Kyung Ju dinners come with little dishes of pickled okra, bok choy, alfalfa sprouts, radish, cabbage, and a combination of sliced radish and cabbage, which I imagine is the Korean equivalent of getting a vanilla/chocolate swirl at Carvel.
Kyung Ju Restaurant
400 NE 167th St., North Miami Beach
305-947-3838. Open daily for lunch and dinner, 11:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
We started out by sampling pa jun, a scallion-studded, egg-based pancake popular at street-vendor stands north and south of the 38th Parallel. The rendition here is a beauty -- heftily portioned, crisply browned, and delectable. Just as Koreans are unafraid to throw anything they can think of into a ceramic pot to ferment, their "why not?" approach to cooking allows them an equally free hand in placing all manner of ingredients into a jun; we tried one speckled with moist oysters that hoisted the flavor up considerably.
A main course of gul bossam also provided an unconventional setting for oysters: freshly shucked in a shiny pile next to neatly fanned slices of hot, steamed pork. My Western taste buds proved strongly resistant to this matchup, but Korean-style dining means lots of dishes in the middle of the table for all to share, so my senses were soon appeased with sweet-and-sesame-marinated short ribs cooked Korean barbecue-style (bulgogi). Two of us ordered the ribs, which means we got to fire them up ourselves on a tabletop grill. I recommend doing this, as on one occasion I alone requested the chicken bulgogi, and the cooked-in-the-kitchen result was a plate filled with dull globules of the bird that perked up only after a heavy application of chili sauce.
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Jang is the term used to denote a fiery chili paste, so I figured it was safe to assume that yuk-kae-JANG, which is beef, vegetables, and clear noodles in bright red broth, would be extremely spicy. It was, as well as quite delicious, but for some reason the black bean paste anchoring gan-ja-JANG was only mildly piquant, the bowl of soft, thick, noodles nonetheless toothsome with beef, potatoes, and a preponderance of onions.
Chigaes are fire-colored soup/stews chock full of varying combinations of seafood, tofu, meat, or vegetables. Kimchi chigae, rife with cabbage, tofu, soft rice cakes, and chewy slices of pork, left my mouth feeling like I had just finished sucking on a nuclear swizzle-stick -- and I mean this in a good way.
Among Kyung Ju's 75 menu items is the traditional naeng-myun, very thin buckwheat noodles immersed with vegetables in cold, full-flavored broth; the prefix bibim denotes lots of chili sauce, while mool means a splash of vinegar and few or no peppers. Mandoo gook brought a blander chicken broth simmered with eggs, sprouts, mushrooms, and soggy, broth-logged, pork-stuffed dumplings. I'd forego the gook, and also skip the kanponggi, slices of beef overwhelmed in a thick blanket of deep-fried batter and glazed with spicy brown sauce.
While Kyung Ju's prices are extremely wallet-friendly (appetizers $6.95 to $7.95, main courses $9.95 to $19.95), desserts such as deep-fried banana ($6.95) and canned lychees in syrup ($7.95) seem considerably less so by comparison. Then again, by the time these sweets roll around, you'll most likely have partaken of so many satisfying courses that a cup of steaming hot tea should suffice.