There are a few things you should do to prepare yourself for a visit to Hangawi. First of all, if you're going for dinner, it's a good idea to make a reservation. Even on a random weeknight, this upscale vegan Koran restaurant in the heart of Koreatown was packed to capacity. Second: wear nice socks. You'll be asked to remove your shoes before entering the main dining room. Finally: make sure you're limber. The tables are set low, and you'll have to kneel and tuck your legs underneath them, so that you're sitting at ground level while your feet sit below on a heated mat.
Ready to go? Good, because you're in for a great meal.
Although we ordered fritters galore ($17) based mainly on the name, they made a fine start to the meal. The mix of vegetables was expertly and lightly fried, not greasy at all. Some of the the items were easy to identify—the large sliver of slightly sweet kabocha squash, the thick starchy taro—but others were a mystery. No matter, they were all good, and all of the pieces paired well with the sweet and tangy dipping sauce.
The sesame leaf tofu patties ($10) were plated in an overly fussy way, but were fantastic. The patties were surprisingly plump and moist, made of a combination of minced oyster mushrooms and tofu, then fried until crisp and topped with a dollop of slightly spicy, slightly sweet Korean red pepper paste.
My favorite of the appetizers was the herb noodle salad ($11). The mugwort noodles were thick and chewy, and they come tossed with mixed greens and a spicy dressing. The noodle salad was served cold, a refreshing contrast to the two fried dishes above. I enjoyed these noodles more than the whimsically named vermicelli delight ($9), a rendition of jap chae, in which the noodles were overcooked.
An entree of bean curd with kimchi and vegetables ($18) looked small at first, but beneath the strips of fried tofu lurked a generous mound of kimchi. The tofu itself was bland, as it often is, but its mildness became an integral creamy part of the kimchi-soaked whole. It's a purely vegetarian kimchi, a nice change from the fishy versions found at most other restaurants. Although Hangawai doesn't bring out an assortment of complimentary small plates (banchan), they did serve two types of kimchi, one mild, one spicy.
As we dragged ourselves from out beneath our table, we realized just how much food we'd eaten. Hangawi is not a cheap restaurant, but you get a lot for your money, including a peaceful atmosphere well removed from hectic Koreatown. Before we knew it, we were presented with our shoes and shown the way towards 32nd Street.
Hangawi isn't the place for an everyday meal, to be sure, but as an occasional destination, it's a transporting treat.
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian. Follow him on Twitter @bklynvegetarian.