I've often wondered why the food-obsessed do what they do. Why do we visit our favorite food blogs on a daily basis, gossip about restaurants, or view hours of cooking shows on television? I like to think that it's more philosophical than honest gluttony—perhaps it's part of the natural human curiosity instinct. Food is indeed a topic with no rules and limitless possibilities, and there's always something new to hold rapt our attention. In Flushing, we'd previously explored a curiously brilliant way to cook a feast of samgyeopsal (pork belly) at Tong Samgyeop Gui, and at Han Joo restaurant, we find a cooking technique we'd never seen or heard of previously—samgyeopsal cooked on a crystal grill.
Han Joo specializes in multiple preparations and flavors of samgyeopsal. Order the dae pae samgyeopsal ($17.95) and they'll shave the pork belly into ethereally thin curls. This preparation supposedly is favorable for diners on a diet, since the fat renders out more completely when cooked. You can also play with the flavors, and try belly that's been marinated in either dwenjang (salty fermented bean paste), garlic, or green tea ($18.95 each). The purist may opt for saeng samgyeopsal ($18.95), which is simply the fresh, un-treated, thick cut pork belly.
On the center stage, they position a translucent crystal slab over a roaring gas flame and tilt it at a slight angle to allow rendered fat to escape. Such a curious cooking vessel necessitated probing. "Soojung" our waitress shrugged; "Crystal". She went on to explain that this method of cooking would produce a more tender bite of pork, and hold in the juices.
This sales pitch raised more questions than it answered. Was it perhaps composed of quartz, or was it some sort of synthetic? Why would a crystal grill provide better results than a traditional metal grill? Before we delved into a full on discussion on the thermal conductive properties of various crystalline structures, the food arrived and commanded our attention.
The waitress proudly trotted over with the luscious pink slabs of belly and layered them with a practiced hand upon the crystal grill, which responded with a fierce hiss and pop. Then she nestled a mound of kimchi downstream, which was perfumed by the resultant pork fat. And while I can't verify the scientific accuracy of our waitress's assertion, the cooked pork belly was indeed blessedly succulent with the ideal level of crispiness on the exterior.
Like any good Korean restaurant, Han Joo masquerades their generosity through an assortment of banchan, or complimentary side dishes. They did well by following the standard issue of various flavors of kimchi, as well as comforting gyeran jjim (steamed egg), and hearty doenjang jjigae (fermented bean paste soup). But there was also a treat of yang nyum ge jang —pungent raw blue crab that's been cured in soy sauce and chili peppers. Most Korean restaurants either forgo this luxury item, or charge for it on the menu. Here at Han Joo, it was an unexpected and welcome endearment.
Depending on your mood and the coming summer weather, chik naeng myun, arrowroot noodles in a slushy beef broth, may be a more suitable dining option, and at Han Joo, the noodles shine. The restaurant seems to take particular delight in specializing in this dish, as they carry multiple versions—plain with beef broth (mul chik naeng myun, $8.95), with a spicy dose of gochujang, sans broth (bibim chik naeng myun, $9.95), or topped with pungent raw skate and gochujang (hwe chik naeng myun, $10.95).
After a meal of samgyeopsal, an order of mul chik naeng myun is the perfect night cap. A giggle broke out at the tables as we slurped the pliant noodles swimming in the refreshing slushy, briny, broth alongside crunchy slices of radish, Korean pear and cucumber. The jubilation may have came from an over-ambitious dose of sinus-clearing mustard, or the feeling that this simple dish of noodles tastes like summertime in a bowl.
After dinner, I spent hours researching the merits of cooking samgyeopsal on crystal without a conclusive explanation. I could only conclude that despite the unconventional method of cooking, the end product was no less familiar or delicious. Indeed, whether it's culinary curiosity or outright hunger that compels you, both needs can be thoroughly satisfied at Han Joo restaurant in Flushing, Queens.
Han Joo Chik Naeng Myun & BBQ
41-06 149 Place, Flushing NY 11355 (map)