Dok Suni, a small, unassuming restaurant in the East Village, was where I had my first encounter with Korean food. Since my first visit there I've eaten at many other Korean restaurants—but there's something special about your first. Even within a cuisine that relies heavily on fish sauce, Dok Suni manages to turn out a respectable number of vegetarian dishes. Out of the five banchan, or small side salads that are served with the meal, four are vegetarian; only the cabbage kimchi contains fish sauce. And all meals begin with a plate of mung bean jelly topped with cucumbers and a chile-sesame sauce, served at room temperature. It's a great way to prepare your palate for the wide array of bold flavors, textures, and temperatures of Korean food.
The vegetable dumplings ($4.50) are usually served with a crab salad, though my server said they had no problem leaving it off of my plate. The dumpling themselves resemble fried jumbo tortellini, and are filled with a mixture of ground vegetables and pieces of noodles. They are savory and chewy, and even better after a quick dunk in the sesame-soy dipping sauce.
My favorite Korean dish of all time may be d'uk buki ($6.75), and every time I visit Dok Suni I make sure to order it. The d'uk buki are rice sticks bathed in gochujang, a Korean chile paste, along with carrots, cabbage, and onions. The dish perfectly highlights the best of Korean cooking—the chewy rice sticks offer a unique texture, the gochujang is both sweet and spicy, and eaten together they make a wonderful combination.
For an entree you can't do much better than hot bibimbop ($13.95; you can also get it cold for $12.95) with tofu. In a hot, stone-bottomed bowl you get layers of rice, vegetables, tofu, and topped with an egg. You also get a small bowl of gochujang to mix into the bowl, which because of the heat is sizzling and continues to cook the contents of the bowl. The runny egg yolk coats everything and adds richness; the shredded radishes and carrots add crunch; the chile paste adds spice. The best part of the bibimbop is the rice at the bottom of the bowl, which gets almost burnt from the hot stone. This may not sound like a good thing, but it definitely is; the crunchy, smoky rice is (like socarrat at the bottom of a proper paella) is the real treasure of the dish.
Dok Suni was created to highlight recipes from the owner's mother, and the food certainly bears that out. There are more than enough vegetarian options on the menu, and the staff seems more than willing to explain what everything is and what it contains—something that doesn't often happen at more popular restaurants in NYC's Koreatown. It will always be my first—and one of my favorite.
119 1st Avenue, New York NY 10003 (map) 212-477-9506