“How did you find out about us?” The voice over the phone is muffled and he keeps switching to Korean before catching himself and slipping back to a heavily accented Spanish. His tone is one of curious bewilderment. This is the way discovering Flores’ isolated Korean dining scene should be.
Jin Suk continues to prod me incredulously, but how did you find out about our restaurant. I could tell I was a unicorn amongst a steady stream of Korean clients. I simplified the truth which was that I had dropped into a fat kid k-hole on Facebook and landed on their page after clicking past dozens of others. A blurry photo of caramelized pork belly over a bed of spiced greens stopped me in my tracks. “Ahh, the wine bossam!” he proclaimed with a joyous bellow, “Yes, we’re cooking it right now. Stop by for dinner.”
By 7pm the neighborhood was devoid of any signs of life. This particular section of Flores is an Once alternative saturated with fabric shops and clothing stores run mostly by its Korean and Jewish population. But as soon as I rounded Cuenca and headed up Morón the smell of hot sesame oil began to perfume the air. The sounds of clanging dishware and foreign tongues rang out from anonymous looking residences, as many of the neighborhood’s eateries are run out of converted homes.
Doma, which simply means ‘cutting board’ in Korean, is a family restaurant run by the Lee family. Jin Suk and his sons Rafael and Gabriel work the dining rooms while the family matriarch, Soon Yi, cooks away in the kitchen. In order to open the restaurant in April they converted their living room and garage into dining salons, “We had a clothing store in the neighborhood but the competition is difficult,” explains Rafael, “My mother was known for her cooking so we decided to sell the shop and open this restaurant.” The restaurant still feels very much like a private home; although the family photos are missing from the wall a Korean calendar with Pope Francis proudly sits on display.
The wine bossam happens to be their staple dish. “You won’t find it anywhere else,” Rafael assures me. Bossam is a traditional pork belly dish that is boiled in a ginger based broth and served in thin slices. When the Lee’s were putting together the menu, Soon Yi decided to make a sauce using red wine as a nod to Argentine cuisine, “People keep coming back just to eat the bossam.” The meat has a gentle char on the outside and a distinct porky flavor; the fat has been reduced down to a buttery gelatin that gushes apart. The first taste of sauce delivers a familiar sweetness which slowly transforms into a nutty sesame flavor before diving into a vinegar tang and zesty acid from the sautéed Chinese chives.
The meal came accompanied with a variety of banchan — small dishes filled with spicy kimchi, gaeranjim (silky smooth steamed egg), citrusy baby turnip kimchi, julienned potato and green beans with fish dough. Guided by photos from Rafael’s cell phone (the menu was printed exclusively in Korean) we chose two cold soups — bibim naengmyeon and mul naengmyeon that were prepared with chewy buckwheat noodles and sliced beef (tender tongue, maybe?). The mul naengmyeon was an easy favorite and offered the perfect antidote for a humid evening: a cool clear broth heavily flavored by the refreshing taste of cucumber. The rest of the menu was decorated with traditional Korean dishes, which Rafael explained had slight variations that paid homage to the families Seoul roots.
“People have this image of what an Asian restaurant should be with fish tanks and lots of bamboo sticks,” explains Guadalupe Toledo of contemporary Korean restaurant Kyopo, “Often the restaurants in Seoul looked like this,” pointing her head around with a knowing glare. Castellum is a small restaurant tucked away in the middle of a dead end alleyway. The room is lit by white fluorescent lights and decorated with industrial metal chairs and shelves painted in a rainbow of bright colors that house soy sauce and pictured menus at each table. A Korean talent show sounds loudly from a television in the back.
The restaurant celebrates the age old tradition of bastardizing Chinese food. Here the menu is an amalgamation of Chinese-Korean dishes. The menu is packed with typical non-traditional fare, as my friend Yefan put it when we returned, “this is white people Chinese food.” Bite size pieces of deep fried breaded pork come smothered in a molasses thick sweet and sour sauce and are accompanied well by flakey pork dumplings made in a hard shell more similar to a baked empanada. Airing on the fusion side was jjamppong, a shellfish noodle soup served in a deep red spicy broth, and my preference, the jajangmyeon which are noodles smothered in a thick and hearty black bean sauce with a more clear mixture of the two national cuisines — the salty chunjang black bean paste mixed with tangy rice wine over egg noodles.
BAB Cocina Coreana, or Azit as the restaurant is called during the day, is a basement space on a shady street on the outskirts of the outlets. The country chic style filled with distressed wood benches and a collection of rusted license plates and antique americana gave me the sensation that I was entering a small town barbecue joint rather than a traditional Korean lunch. The restaurant was originally run by a young graphic designer turned cook, Belen Jung, who has since left the space to her cousin Jonathan Kang who runs the floor and cooks together with his aunt.
By day the restaurant serves a small selection of noodle and stir fry dishes while in the evening it dedicates itself to barbecue. Although the decor and the menu felt mismatched, the generously portioned meals had a clear guided eye for crisp presentation and a subdued mix of flavors. “You want noodles, dumplings and fried pork!?” the soft-spoken Kang asked. I assured him he didn’t get lost in the translation.
The jeyuk dopbab (stir fried pork over sticky white rice) had a cool sweetness before a burst of the spicy red gochugang chile paste kicked in. The vegetables were a mix of the deeply flavored fermented kimchi and fresh white and green onions. The egg yolk that ran off of the fried egg gave the thin slices of pork a nice buttery contrast from its sugary marinade. At Kang’s suggestion, I paired it with bibim guksu, slightly cold spicy noodles served with a generous dollop of spicy red sauce, a light but noticeable splash of sesame oil and an assortment of fresh julienned vegetables. Fried pork dumplings had a soft doughy shell and a nice sear in the middle. The lightly spiced pork had a subtle savoriness that was wonderful on its own and made even better with a quick dip in baechu guk, a salty light brown cabbage soup.
As we were rounding up to leave Doma, Soon Yi exited the kitchen to say goodbye. Of the old school restaurants in the neighborhood, a warm hearted appreciation of gringos curious enough to venture to Flores was a common thread. “I learned how to cook from my mother and her mother taught her and so on and I’m happy that you all comieron ricos,” she explained with a bright eyed smile, “Please come back and try some more.”