I judge Korean restaurants entirely by those little dishes called panchan. Anything less than six is a disappointment.
For me, the Korean world of Bergen County represents the most intimidating of challenges. The few people I know who speak and/or read the language all have superb excuses for not joining me; they live in Manhattan and don´t consider Bergen County far enough away to be a "real" adventure, they live in Edison but don´t really eat out and can buy most of what they need without a forty mile drive through crushing traffic, or they just don´t want to escort gringos through the labyrinth of chilies, fermentation, and raw seafood that they otherwise might call home.
This has led me to ask the question; "What happens if a lone non-Korean speaking guy showed up and started poking around?" I drove over, pumped some quarters in the parking meter, and set off to find out.
Broad Avenue in Palisades Park is the epicenter of life in Korean New Jersey. Filled with takeout shops, restaurants, coffee shops, book stores and boutiques, it´s worth a visit and a stroll if any of these things interest you.
The takeouts, most of them with the English word "catering" on their storefronts caught my attention first. I walked into Jingogae Catering and was dazzled by the offerings; dozens of panchan items, giant jars of kimchee, packs of prepared noodles, and sushi to go. I was so intimidated that I couldn´t utter a word, even though the employees looked more than happy to help.
Down the street I found a restaurant called "Cap Udon" with delicious looking plastic models of Korean and Japanese noodle dishes in the window. Even before I was seated, the staff started warning me about how spicy the food was. This struck me as a bit dumb. Is there anybody in Northern New Jersey that doesn´t know that Korean food is spicy? I mean...it´s not like the words "I feel like something really spicy tonight, let´s go for some Korean" have never been uttered before. And even if you didn´t know it before, the smell of chilies that permeates the air as you walk down Broad Avenue would tip you off.
I ordered a plate of Jolmyun, a huge bowl of cold noodles and salad vegetables topped with spicy bean paste. They also gave me three panchan dishes and a bowl of miso broth. When the waitress saw me truly enjoying the kimchee panchan, it kind of broke the ice. Soon, I was even offered extra hot bean paste (on the table, but well-hidden) for my noodles. I cleaned my plate - and the panchan plates, but still felt like an outsider.
Lucky for me, I was able to negotiate something better. In exchange for driving her and her boyfriend Michael (see my asparagus entry for more about him) back and forth from Manhattan, food guru, publicist, and authentic Korean, Hanna Lee agreed to join me the next day.
After spending a few seconds marveling at the Korean language traffic signs, we found ourselves in Jingoge; there Hanna would pick up a package, say nothing about its contents, and loudly announce "This is my favorite!" Within five minutes, she had identified at least nine different favorites and was buzzing with excitement. As we staggered down Broad Avenue in the crushing heat, Hanna announced that she wanted to die, but Michael and I demanded that she stay with the living long enough to get us into a good restaurant. Soon we were in front of a place whose only English sign read "The Fresh Tofu Restaurant." There Hanna was completely awakened by the whiteboard specials sign; they were offering Sam gye tang, a stone pot chicken dish that Michael described as "classic Korean comfort food." We had to have it.
When I´m not with such distinguished company, I judge Korean restaurants entirely by those little dishes called panchan, sometimes by quantity - anything less than six is a disappointment - and other times by quality - what good does nine different apps do you if they all came out of a jar?
The panchan at The Fresh Tofu Restaurant didn´t come out of a jar, and the summer kimchi and bachelor´s kimchi were fresh and vibrant in a way that I didn´t know Korean food could be. Of course, the fresh tofu was nothing to complain about either. The four of us were so psyched that we devoured a pork and kimchi pancake before I could take a picture of it - and before we realized it was nothing more than average.
Then there was that sam gye tang, a steaming hot chicken soup meant to be consumed during heat waves - no wonder it was a special - it came to the table boiling in its stone pot even though there was no obvious source of energy. It turned out to be that sort of super-comforting boiled chicken dish that is found somewhere in almost every cuisine and while it didn´t quite cool us off, it was everything else it was supposed to be.
Finally, the cold buckwheat noodles called naeng myun came to the table, Hanna did something that shocked me; she added a bit of hot yellow mustard to the chilled broth. Why didn´t I ever think of this? Sticking my face into the cool bowl and slurping down the mustard-y broth was wonderful - even if it did violate Korean table etiquette. The coolness of the steel bowl was like an extra dose of air conditioning, something I needed badly that evening.
About the author: Brian Yarvin is an educator, photographer, and author of three cookbooks; "Farms and Foods of the Garden State," "Cucina Piemontese," and "A World of Dumplings." He lives in New Jersey, and every week will share with us another food discovery from the "sixth borough" of New York City.
248 Broad Avenue, Palisades Park, New Jersey 07650 (map)
198 Broad Avenue, Palisades Park, New Jersey 07650 (map)
The Fresh Tofu Restaurant
268 Broad Avenue, Palisades Park, New Jersey 07650 (map)