A Late Night Korea Town Food and Bar Crawl
A Korean-American friend once told me, "Who goes to Koreatown for the food? You go there to drink."
In a way that's true: visit many a K-Town restaurant and you'll have to look hard for a table empty of soju or beer. But there's also plenty to eat, and many kitchens stay open into the wee hours of the morning to keep up with demand.
So when Matt Rodbard, author of the smartly curated Korean Restaurant Guide of New York, offered to take us around the neighborhood, I asked him to show us some of his favorite late night bars and restaurants—something to go with all that drinking.
Koreatown is full of 24-hour barbecue spots, soup specialists, and fried chicken joints—some literally stacked on top of each other—but we stuck to food best for late-night snacking: crispy offal, spicy Spam and cheese stew, crackly pancakes, and some stomach-soothing bone broth to top it all off.
Stop 1: Arang
"The name of this dish translates literally to 'chicken shit house,' but it's better than it sounds," Matt says by way of introduction to our plate of Dak Ddong Jip ($15), chicken gizzards curled and crisped on a griddle with green onions and garlic. It's offal you eat like popcorn, with morphing textures of crisp, chewy, and tender. We dipped it and some Juipo Tiguim Ttankong ($19)—fried "leather fish" sweetened and spiced like jerky, served with dried shredded squid and peanuts—in ample bowls of nutty sesame oil and funky-sweet gochujang chili bean sauce.
Arang is a drinking and eating den that looks like something of a woodland village inside. Its crowd skews young, and fills in late at night; Matt's a fan of the place because of the expansive menu's take on restaurant classics. Such as those spicy rice cakes: You can get them covered in cheese, "like nachos."
Stop 2: K-Town Bar
Cross the street, then walk down a slender flight of stairs, and you'll find yourself at K-Town Bar, where the predominant form of lighting comes from flat screens playing the Knicks game. "I've always thought of K-Town as an obvious late night spot," Matt tells us. "I mean you have the Knicks right here, and it's all so centrally located." And hey, the servers at K-Town Bar wear scrolling LED marquees on their chests—what's not to love?
K-Town Bar has yard-o-beer apparatus to spare and all you'll need for soju bombs—more or less equal parts soju and light beer. When people ask about a good "session" beer to drink without getting tired, my answer is this stuff: you can take round after round of the low-octane drink and still tackle more fried chicken.
Speaking of fried chicken, K-Town's ($10 for a small) is best when you're already a little wobbly. The tender, tender meat is mildly seasoned and encased in a thick batter drenched in sweet-and-spicy glaze, causing the crust to lose most of its crispness. Better is a big ol' platter of stir fried blood sausage, Soondae Bokkeum ($18), with onions, cabbage, scallion, and more gochujang. It's creamier and milder blood sausage than most, run through with chewy vermicelli noodles that pick up the sauce from within.
K-Town Bar: 34 West 32nd Street, New York, NY 10001 (map); 212-643-2603; Hours: 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday to Friday, 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. Saturday
Stop 3: Pocha 32
For our next stop we head back to an upstairs restaurant, Pocha 32, which commands long waits for its enormous share plates and exquisite nautical theme. But first things first: Punch ($30, serves at least four generously), served in a hollowed-out watermelon and filled with soju, watermelon juice, and Sprite. It's the sorority party drink you always wanted—sweet and refreshing, not cloying or overly boozy.
It's also just the thing to cool down a massive order of Buddae Jiggae, which we've hit up before and will likely hit up again. $27 gets you a bubbling cauldron of noodles, hot dogs, Spam, and greens all afloat in a thick, spicy broth redolent of anchovies and—that's right—more gochujang. Oh, and melted cheese spread all over the top for good measure. It serves four to six. You do not leave Pocha 32 hungry.
Less pricy, but just as good, is the Vegetable Pa Jun ($16), a loose fried vegetable pancake that forgoes crispness for generous chunks of summer squash and onion. It's light, as drinking food in K-Town goes, and best with generous lashes of sesame-laced dipping sauce.
Stop 4: Gahm Mi Oak
"This place is best as a last stop," Matt tells us as we enter Gahm Mi Oak, a quiet, wood-lined restaurant that always has smooth jazz on the stereo. You're here for seolleongtang ($16.82), a bowl of ox bone soup simmered "basically all day. Head over to the kitchen and you'll see the big pot of bones."
Gahm Mi Oak's seolleongtang is as milky as ramen broth, a delicate creamy soup to soothe stomachs and ease you out of a long night. It arrives at the table purposefully unsalted; you add scallions and salt (laced with MSG) to taste to make the soup come alive. Some slurps of broth, maybe punctuated by the restaurant's complimentary (and excellent) radish kimchi, is as good a hangover preventative as any in Manhattan. A fitting end to a long, filling night.
There's plenty in K-Town we've saved for another trip, but if you want more recommendations, consider getting a free copy of Matt Rodbard's Korean restaurant guide at the Korean embassy in Midtown, or download it for your phone (iPhone / Android / PDF).
We also want to know: what are your favorite late night bites in the neighborhood? Tell us in the comments.