New Yorkers are slaves to dining trends, and I've stumbled upon unintentional consonants in the Korean restaurants that make up some of the Flushing dining scene. For example, Joo Mak Gol unconsciously embraces the whole local, seasonal, and artisanal thing. And as cool as that might be, Joo Mak Gol is painfully square. They're located in a near derelict stretch of sleepy shops and divey bars in Flushing instead of the hip West Village. Their regulars are gin blossomed livery cab drivers downing bottles upon bottles of soju, whole families with rowdy kids in tow, and teenagers looking for a cheap fill-up. The only models in sight are printed on weathered alcohol advertisements, and the only bottles are of soju that cost $10. Being un-cool has never tasted so good.
There's an English menu available, but the waitstaff may not be fully conversational. Despite the language barrier, I often find that grunting and pointing as a means of ordering one's food is indicative of a good meal to come.
It's impossible not to smile as a spread of banchan, soups, rice, and other dishes are plunked before you. Like any good Korean restaurant, Joo Mak Gol is generous with the portions, though in this case, they're generous to a fault. At some point, the wooden table disappeared under a sea of dishes, and they began to stack one upon the other to create space—or perhaps we weren't eating fast enough.
The restaurant carries the familiar line-up of Korean stews, grilled proteins and stir fries, but they excel at what is ostensibly "rabbit food"—their lofty respect for seasonal green vegetables and their amazing homemade dwenjang (salty fermented bean paste), which they integrate into their food as well as sell by the container. I suspect that they would make a killing with this artisanal product if they peddled it at the Brooklyn Flea instead of the clapped out back counter of this modest little restaurant.
They start off your meal with a steaming hot bowl of dwenjang jjigae (bean paste stew), which is astonishingly spicy despite its demure murkiness. You'll want to slurp the bowl of the fine homemade soybean based broth, which is deeply earthy, faintly sweet, and studded with vegetables and tofu. You'll then want to cool off with a few mouthfuls of ogokbap (5 grain rice), or a slug of that restorative soju, and then beckon for another bowl, which comes on-the-house.
You shouldn't miss their expertly roasted mackerel ($13.95) with astoundingly sweet and tender flesh. However, I'm told with good authority that during the summer months, the owner will catch and serve fish caught in local waters. I don't know the legality of such practice, but Dan Barber, eat your heart out.
The flakes of mackerel are meant to be eaten with the crunchy fresh greens, which are supplied in a variety and quality I've never encountered before in a New York-area Korean restaurant. I counted crisp leaves of cabbage, tender red leaf lettuce, slices of boiled seaweed, pointy bitter spikes of dandelion, and various herbs—cilantro, thick stalks of garlic chives, and herbaceous chrysanthemum.
Another must try is the bossam ($14.95), a no-nonsense row of thick cut pork belly, which is steamed to moist perfection and accompanied by a pile of briny raw oysters. Nestled in crisp lettuce and anointed with a bit of spicy sweet ssamjang, it's an ideal one-two punch of pork and shellfish. However, diners seeking a more familiar pork dish should sway towards the crowd-pleasing daeji bulgogi ($13.95), which is stir fried slices of pork loin, with a slight nod of heat and sweet.
On the opposite end of the spectrum of familiarity, there's daegu murijim ($25.95), an enormous deep fried cod head, with all of the nasty bits still intact—eyeballs, tongue, and gorgeous cheek meat. Underneath the pile of bean sprouts and gochujjang (hot pepper) fueled sauce, there's a fish face that only a Mother, or a non-squeamish eater, could love.
As other New York restaurants struggle to keep up with the times by offering artisanal this, and seasonal that, the old school restaurants in Flushing, such as Joo Mak Gol, have always kept it real. It's often the case that they're just too cool to realize it.
Joo Mak Gol
3526 Farrington St, Flushing NY 11354 (map)