The highlight of my travels to Korea to visit family is always a "boys' night out" with my cousins. These freewheeling affairs are not only a time for male bonding, but also an opportunity for masculine posturing and patriotic bravado—measured by the number of soju bottles conquered by the Americans (me) versus my Korean competition.
During the impending hangover, we reconvene and call a truce in the form of gamjatang, pork neck and potato stew —a natural remedy and peacemaker if there ever were one. Unfortunately, this dish is a rarity in Manhattan Koreatown, and one must travel to Flushing to get a true taste. And the gamjatang at Geo Si Gi is as good as any.
Like many specialty Korean restaurants, there's an endearing quirkiness to the aesthetics of Geo Si Gi. The façade prominently features a stylized potato scampering after a fleeing boar, and inside the décor is dominated by homey wooden tables and alcohol advertisements. Service is curt, but not unaccommodating to the occasional Westerner that stumbles in. The menu is rigid, limited only to gamjatang and a few side dishes such as slightly desiccate Korean-style omelettes (gyerenmari) and acceptable savory pancakes (pajeon). However, the spotlight here is on gamjatang, which arrives with its own portable burner, ensuring it remains boiling hot from conception to consumption.
At first, one should admire the glistening, ruddy broth. It's loaded with collagen from a long steep in pork bones, giving it the same lip-smacking appeal of great broths that lean heavily on dissolved connective tissue to give richness and body—Hakata-style ramen, coq au vin, and the like. Despite the menacing, violent red hue, the broth contains only enough heat to intrigue, but not overwhelm the palate. Instead, there's a bouquet of earthy and savory flavors from the pork, bean paste (doenjang), perilla seeds (deulkkae garu), hot pepper paste (gochujang) and other aromatics, herbs, and spices.
A survey of the bowl's ingredients turns up largish, primitive looking chunks of pork spine with plenty of meat still intact. One is required to sing for their supper with this dish, as the pork skeleton begrudgingly shelters the tender pork flesh. This requires a degree of dexterity and perseverance to extract the sweet meat, which can be winnowed out with chopsticks or attacked directly with the teeth (light-colored clothing is not advised for this dining experience). Diners are rewarded for their efforts with a bite of pork flavor and texture that I find far superior to any other found on the rest of the hog.
Not that it's all about the piggy decadence and seductive broth with this dish. There are also creamy potatoes (the 'gamja' in gamjatang) , vegetal strips of edible chrysanthemum (ssukgat), crunchy chives (buchu), and suspiciously healthy-looking water dropwort. Depending on the season and the cook's disposition, one might find the fragrant, and slightly anise-y perilla leaf (deulkkae), theatrically perched on top of their bowl.
Diners have the option of ordering extras of each component, or further enriching their gamjatang with side orders of chewy nubs of rice cake (dduk) and hearty udon noodles. And it would be an outright shame to leave dinner without ordering the fried rice (bokkeumbap) at the end. This post-script to your gamjatang is cooked in the same vessel, and assimilates any lingering flavors into triumphantly hearty fried rice. Paired with cold soju, it's a match made in heaven.
At the end of the meal, proudly reflect upon your accomplishments—discarded pork vertebrae picked clean, placemats besmirched with red broth, puddles of spilled soju, empty plates, and smiles around the table. My earlier experiences with this dish were necessitated as a "haejangguk" (a hangover cure), but the gamjatang at Geo Si Gi is good enough to stand on its own. My suggestion is to make a night of Geo Si Gi. Eat and imbibe in excess, and return the next day, possibly hung-over, to make porky peace with a hearty bowl of gamjatang.
Geo Si Gi
15228 Northern Blvd, Flushing, NY 11354 (map) 718-888-0001