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Hooni Kim's Guide to Korean Food and Ingredients in NYC and New Jersey
Hooni Kim was trained in French and Japanese cooking (by way of Daniel and Masa), but the Seoul-born chef returned to his roots with his first restaurant, the modern Korean Danji, whose bulgogi slider inspired fever dreams in Ruth Reichl. His follow-up, Hanjan, is a take on the 'joomak,' a Korean tavern that provided sustenance for weary travelers.
The liberties Kim takes with his native cuisine speak to his encyclopedic knowledge of Korean food and ingredients: he buys many items from Korea, electing to have them slow-boated over. If his supply of hand-roasted sesame oil or gluten free soy sauce runs out, however, he's got a few back-up spots close to home.
The only Korean supermarket in Manhattan is H-Mart, in Koreatown. It's not very big, but it has a lot of stuff. It's my emergency go-to for the restaurant. The biggest one is the H-Mart superstore in Ridgefield, New Jersey. You can get everything there: flatware, Korean pajamas, ingredients for kimchi, kimchi that has been made by H-Mart, or kimchi that has been made in Korea and shipped over.
It's like a Bloomingdale's with an eatery below. They have all kinds of stuff: dried daikon, dried anchovies, perilla leaves (Western and Chinese markets don't sell these), probably 20 different varieties of gochujang...sometimes it makes it confusing. They sell sesame oil that comes straight from Korea, and it's $30 a bottle. We get it from Korea for the restaurant, so we try not to have to buy that, but a couple of times we've had to.
Kimchi is such a personal thing; my mother and I couldn't eat the same kind. I personally like kimchi that's a little fresher, not as aged. Right when the shrimp is starting to ferment, it gives off a slight carbonation. That, for me, is when kimchi is perfect: it's fresh, crunchy, a little funky from the garlic, but hasn't really fermented yet. It's like the sparkling rosé of kimchi, whereas some people prefer a Cabernet. I have a friend who runs a steakhouse called Prime and Beyond NY, that's a typical American steakhouse with Korean sides. They first opened in Fort Lee, as a butcher shop, and then expanded there to a restaurant, and recently opened this one in the East Village. The owner, Q the Butcher, does the cooking, and his mother makes all the sides, including the kimchi. I love her kimchi.
Pulmuone is a brand they sell at M2M (multiple locations). In Korea, the company is famous for being honest and healthy, using only organic soybeans. There are 4 different kinds: firm tofu, that you use to cut and sauté; soft, that you can put in stews; the really soft one that you can just steam and spoon eat with soy sauce; and then the super soft one, that you use for soondubu.
If it's a special occasion, I love Dickson's in Chelsea Market. Korean cows are tough but very flavorful, so we tend to marinate beef a lot. The main ingredient when marinating beef in Korea is Asian pear—the acid breaks down the fibers so the meat becomes really tender.
I've had really good luck getting Kurobuta pork, which is a dark-skinned, Japanese breed of Berkshire pig, at Lobel's on the Upper East Side. They carry it all the time. I use it for Korean-style pork ribs or grilled or braised pork belly.
The one brand I like is Sempio. That company has an amazing reputation: all they do is soy sauce, which is rare (since once a company starts selling soy sauce, they usually begin to sell all other condiments). It's gluten-free. All the H-Marts carry it.
Korean food is based on garlic. Most of the garlic sold in the states comes from China, and the initial flavor of Chinese garlic is really aggressive, so it tastes really good, but the flavor disappears after a few hours. California garlic has a more lasting flavor. I like a brand from Gilroy, California, called Christopher Ranch, which you can buy at Baldor.
At Hanjan, we have a late-night ramen, and the noodles are made by the guys at Totto Ramen.
Red pepper flakes
We get ours from Korea, but whenever we start running out, we go to Kalustyan's for back-up: they sell really good Korean red pepper flakes. Korean pepper flakes are sweeter and don't have that dry flavor. The texture is a little soft and not as dehydrated.
Tous Les Jours is a big pastry chain in Korea that just opened its first branch in K Town. Their breads are so soft that they stand out. The pastries aren't as sweet, and it's very typical of what Koreans consider bread or pastry. I feed my four year-old the bread and pastry there because it has a little less sugar and is easier to eat.
In Manhattan, there's this lunch take-out place called Woorijip that sells about four different kind of soju. There's a liquor store attached to H-Mart, and they sell every brand of soju known to man. Jinro 24 is what we exclusively use on the menu at Hanjan. There are hundreds of different soju brands, and I've tasted them all. This is far superior to drink straight. At Danji, we make fruit-infused soju and then turn it into sangria.
Kang Suh is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. I always run into my previous boss, Masa, late at night, when he has a craving for Korean. They do a sashimi bibimbap called hwe dup bop, with salmon, yellowtail, and fluke atop fresh vegetables. There are many kinds of bibimbap besides the plain one we know, and this is one of the most popular in Korea.
This is a very wintery, spicy pork neck potato stew that you usually have with soju. It has mustard seeds and perilla leaves. The broth, with the flavor from the bone, really makes that dish. They serve it with the pork neck bone and there's tender, flavorful meat stuffed inside that you can pick it out. The best place to have that is Geo Si Gi in Flushing; they're famous for that dish.
Koreans have a tradition of sashimi also, and it's called hwe. In Korea, you get the whole fish filleted, skinned, and sliced for you. A really good place for that is Je Ju Do in Flushing. All the fish are alive in a tank, you pick the fish, and you get the head and bones, with the sashimi is on top. The tail is still whacking, and you can see the fish still breathing. At the end they make a spicy stew called maeuntang out of the bones, and it's a great way to end after the cold sashimi. It's a spicy broth with garlic, radish, scallions, tofu, and red pepper flakes.