My first boyfriend was Korean, and I think I fell in love with his culture's cuisine as much as I did with him. While the other kids had lunch at Burger King or a pizza joint, Steve and I would dash over to his house, where he'd pull all manner of mysterious sauces from the refrigerator and whip up exotic stir-fries. Even in high school I was interested in the preparation of food, and I'd pester him to tell me what was in those sauces. "I don't know --they're my mother's secret recipes," he'd explain.
Unfortunately, his mother didn't like me -- I was a gringa, or the Koreans' equivalent -- so I never did learn her tricks. But knowing a little bit more about the food now, I can guess that she was a pretty traditional cook and I can piece together her fragrant ingredients. Sesame oil. Soybean paste. Red hot chilies. And loads of garlic. All the enticing flavors I recently rediscovered at Kyung Ju.
A two-year-old Korean and Chinese restaurant in North Miami Beach, Kyung Ju originally served Korean and Japanese food, an interesting arrangement given the country's history of being invaded by the Japanese. (The Japanese actually played a significant role in the development of Korea's cuisine. Accompanied by Portuguese missionaries who had had contact with the New World Spanish explorers, Japanese armies brought the all-important chili pepper to the Land of the Morning Calm at the end of the Sixteenth Century.) But regardless of what second cuisine the restaurant is listing on the menu, it's an afterthought. Korea is the culinary star here, evident in the spicy soups and casseroles, the numerous cured-vegetable side dishes, the marinated beef and pork cooked to order on a tabletop grill.
If there were any part of Dade that could politically incorrectly be labeled Chinatown, Kyung Ju would be located in the middle of it. This slightly bedraggled portion of 167th Street just east of I-95 is rife with Asian markets, bakeries, restaurants, even a homemade-noodle shop. But while the restaurant's Easternized pancake house design helps it blend in, its ethnic orientation allows it to stand out; since Mandarin House closed last year, Kyung Ju is one of only two Korean establishments I know of in Dade. (Shilla, a neighborhood favorite, seems firmly ensconced on NW Second Street just west of 79th Avenue.) Kyung Ju's chef-owners Jum Soo Choy and wife Myung Choy are from Seoul. They've lived in Miami for five years; before opening his own restaurant here, Jum Soo spent three years as a chef at Mandarin House. For six years before that, he owned his own restaurant, also called Mandarin House, in L.A.
Kyung Ju's eighteen-category menu can be confusing. Names of dishes are written out in Korean characters, phonetic Korean, English, and, in the case of items such as kung pao chicken and beef with broccoli, Chinese characters (which indicate the nationality of the dish). If you're unfamiliar with the food, as many of us are in Korean-deprived Miami, your best bet is to ask the staff for recommendations. Though not all staffers speak English, all are happy to help novices avoid surprises like boiled tripe and cold jellyfish, flavors that might seem unappealing to Western tongues.
Which is not to say you'll be eating the Korean version of chop suey. Even the most familiar-sounding dishes carry an artful, exotic punch. An appetizer of tofu with hot sauce, for example, comprised six large triangles of velvety steamed bean curd doused with a composition of garlic, chili peppers (seeds and all), and soy sauce ($6.95). The sauce was so arresting we each paused, chopsticks in the air, for a moment of silence after the first mouthful. Then dove for our mugs of hot tea. According to Copeland Marks, author of The Korean Kitchen, how coolly one suffers the chili pepper is the sole measuring tool of machismo in Korea. If that's truly the case, then tofu with hot sauce informed me I'm not always the man I think I am.
We continued to explore the relationship between machismo and masochism with a pair of casseroles. Meant to be consumed as a meal, these soupy stews are also hearty when shared as a starter; even denjang gike, boiled soybean paste, the smaller of the two, was big enough to split. The thick and somewhat grainy broth, reminiscent of miso soup, had a peppery bite and contained chopped zucchini, minced onions, chunks of mild tofu, and plump shelled oysters. A-koo soup, starring monkfish, was downright spicy, red pepper adrift in the stock ($12.95). Tofu, a couple of shrimp, bok choy, and slices of mild, boiled white radish accented the bony hunks of monkfish, which looked unappetizing but were, apart from a slight chewiness, very tasty. (Corvina, or chogi, a popular fish in Korea, is also available in a soup and may be more familiar to South Floridians, given our Latin American influences.) A warning should be served along with spoons with this one: The red pepper tends to sink, causing the broth to become even more stimulating as it diminishes.
Sticky white rice, similar to Japanese sushi rice, was a good way to combat the soups' mouth-burning effects. The multitude of vegetable side dishes served complimentary with main courses -- marinated bean sprouts, shredded white radish with seaweed, bamboo shoots, and broccoli with a yellow sesame-flavored sauce -- also worked as a cooling system. Traditional kim chee (cabbage fermented with plenty of hot pepper), of course, performed the opposite function, heating up the palate with its piquant sauce.
Bibim naeng myon, cold noodles with beef, was accompanied by Kyung Ju's handiest tool, and I'm not talking about chopsticks. Scissors were required to cut the long, tan-colored vermicelli into manageable lengths. The noodles, sticky and chewy, were bathed in a potent gochu jang (chili pepper paste) dressing, and garnished with slices of Korean radish, cucumber, and pear. Oddly, the main ingredient -- beef -- was absent, and the language barrier prevented us from ascertaining exactly what had happened to it. But the flavors of this recipe were so vibrant we hardly missed it.
We got plenty of meat with an order of bul-kogi, one of Korea's most popular dishes and my favorite part of the meal ($12.95). Koreans are descended from a Mongolian people that migrated from Manchuria, and this beef barbecue is one of the few culinary influences that can be traced back to the Mongols. Chunks of boneless lean meat were marinated in garlic, then grilled to a delicious medium-rare. Two dips -- a rich soybean paste and a sesame oil-black pepper combo -- provided additional flavor, and crisp romaine leaves were used to wrap the hot beef as it came off the grill. Though Kyung Ju, like most modern restaurants, doesn't sear its meat over wood, the waiters do their best to comply with bulgogi tradition: Our server cooked the beef over an open gas grill that he set upon our table. He also barbecued pork for us in this fashion, cutting the long, thin marinated strips with those useful scissors before throwing the meat on the grill.
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Purists from metropolitan areas on both coasts -- where burgeoning Korean populations have brought an explosion of barbecue restaurants -- might be disappointed that these grills aren't actually built into the tables and that they don't have a place for vegetables; more traditional, rounded grills allow the meat juices to collect in a trough, providing a tasty cooking liquid for leafy greens. But that letdown might be somewhat assuaged by the fact that the selection of meats offered for grilling includes beef tongue, as well as more conventional fare such as short ribs, chicken, and the aforementioned beef and pork.
Diners in a rush may want to have the kitchen prepare the meat dishes, as the tabletop process can take awhile. Those who don't have time for leisure might also avoid sitting in one of Kyung Ju's booths, which are paneled floor to ceiling with rice paper; though the privacy was wonderful, it was sometimes difficult to get our server's attention. Once we got that attention, however, the thoughtfulness was unquestionable: Our desserts, an order of glazed bananas ($5.95) and one of glazed boniato ($6.95), were brought with a bowl of ice cubes. The idea was to cool off the freshly caramelized pieces of fruit and tuber before popping them in our mouths. The banana slices were firm and sweet under the crisp sugar, but the boniato wedges, like candy-coated French fries, were certainly the more unusual treat.
I'm not in the habit of looking up old boyfriends, but I did locate Steve, listed under his Korean name, in an on-line directory the other day. And I'm strongly considering e-mailing him, just to tell him how, for a few hours, I was transported back to his kitchen, watching him prepare lunch and wondering exactly what was in those sauces. Thinking that of Kyung Ju, at least, his mother would approve.
400 NE 167th St, North Miami Beach; 947-3838. Open Monday -- Saturday from 11:00 a.m. until midnight; Saturday 4:00 p.m. until midnight.