Korean cuisine can be a conundrum. Relatively few westerners are familiar with the culinary specialties of the isolated peninsular nation (shaped not unlike Florida), compared to that of, say, Korea's higher-profile neighbor, Japan, which is often wrongly cited as the nation from which Korean cuisine is derived.
The mystery of Korean eats is partially owed to the so-called Hermit Kingdom's fabled resistance to foreign influence; 500 years of repeated invasions haven't exactly encouraged the populace to embrace the cuisine of other countries. The puzzle also stems from Korea's many microenvironments, which produce enough raw ingredients to encourage a mind-bogglingly complex variety of dishes. Also daunting to the Korean-food novice: Even some very simple dishes have names like p'yeongyangshik naengmyeon (a.k.a. mulnaengmyeon, which clears things right up, yes?).
Never mind. Although not easy to comprehend, Korean food is very easy to like. Especially at Myung Ga, a casual place that looks like a luncheonette and eschews esoteric specialties like seonijiguk (pig blood curd soup) and sannakji (tentacle of small live octopus, served still squirming). Instead the friendly staff serves up stuff that's just as scary to spell, but appetizing even to a child. (There's a kids' menu to prove it.)
It makes sense to stick to a restaurant's specialties, one of which is housemade tofu. But the menu listed 10 soups, all of which sounded inviting — particularly a grand one with beef and seafood as well as bean curd — and the hot night made the aforementioned mulnaengmyeon irresistible. Iced noodle soup might sound odd, but the tangy cold beef broth was remarkably refreshing, and a mountain of other ingredients — thin buckwheat noodles, raw julienned veggies, hardboiled egg sections, and Asian pear, an inspired addition — made it a lovely, light summer meal ... for two.
To tofu-test, we tried a starter of dubujeon (tofu steaks). The protein can be boring, but Myung Ga's was beautifully custardlike. Dipped in egg wash for a tissue-thin but crisp crust, and served with a subtly sweetened soy dip, the six squares made me momentarily forget every insult I've hurled at bean curd.
It's disappointing, though, that the element that turns Korean barbecue into dinner and a show — the traditional tabletop charcoal grill — is absent from Myung Ga. Meat is grilled in the kitchen, and of the two types we tried — galbee (short ribs flavored with a soy/fruit marinade and laid on a grilled onion bed) and boolgogi (thinly sliced marinated beef with onions and scallions) — the latter lacked any grill taste; it seemed sautéed. But the superior marinade imbued both with mouthwatering flavor.
To eat the 'cue properly (on a bite-size piece of sweet-bean-sauce-smeared lettuce, with a chunk of raw garlic), you'll need romaine and garlic. These items, annoyingly, cost an extra $1.50, and the garlic isn't even grilled. But chili sauce, to heat dishes to taste (contrary to myth, not all Korean food is incendiary), comes free. And happily so does the generous banchan (side dish) assortment that accompanies all authentic Korean meals. Included are sesame-dressed sprouts, a soothing green salad, and several spicy fermented crunchies such as kim chee, Korea's mouth-searing national dish. Kim chee is also apparently very healthy, illustrating a ruling tenet of Korean cuisine, that food and medicine share an origin. It's called yaksikdongwon.
Yup. Another mouthful. But like every unfamiliar thing at Myung Ga, it goes down easy.
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