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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hyo Dong Gak

Comfort food has many forms, and for me one of them--most likely originating from my college days when I had quite a few Korean friends--is jja jang myun. There is something almost primal about a bowl of noodles with a dark brown (almost black), glossy sauce of meat, soy bean paste, and vegetables. And when I get that craving, I head down to Hyo Dong Gak, in Manhattan's Koreatown.

Jja jang myun is a Koreanization of the Chinese dish zha jiang mian, which shows up on Chinese menus as "noodle with Peking meat sauce", hence the fact that one must go specifically to a Korean-Chinese restaurant to get this dish. And, although both the Korean and Chinese versions have many of the same ingredients, somehow they taste nothing like each other. Hyo Dong Gak makes theirs, most importantly, with hand-pulled noodles--ask your waiter to bring over the scissors to cut them up before starting, or you're going to be in for an especially complicated eating experience. These delectable, springy strands are offered with four variations of jja jang sauce (myun=noodle)... my favorite is the one with ground meat as opposed to the small chunks. I can never remember which one that is, but your waiter or waitress will be happy to describe the differences between the sauces. All vaguely resemble oil slicks, so try not to be alarmed. To me the flavor is totally incongruous with the sauce's appearance--complex, yet soothing, with a mild earthiness. One of my Korean friends proclaimed that the jja jang myun "kinda sucked", but without a lot of specific childhood memories to live up to, I think it's delicious, and other Korean friends of mine like it well enough.

What ALL of my friends have agreed is spectacular, and the other real reason to go here, is the fried meat dumpling (goon mandu is also, for some reason, mostly the province of Korean-Chinese restaurants). Eight large mandu (twice the size of most Chinese dumplings), fried to a crisp golden brown--a bargain at around seven bucks. Mix your own traditional dipping sauce of half soy sauce, half vinegar right at the table (I like to add a little red pepper, naturally).

Be aware that there are two separate menus here: a Korean one and a Chinese one, and I don't think there are any dishes that appear on both. Ask for the Korean menu (they usually automatically hand caucasians the Chinese one)--General Tso's Chicken is not what makes this restaurant special and unusual.

Hyo Dong Gak
51 W. 35th St., New York 10001
view Chinese menu, if you're curious (the Korean menu does not appear to be online anywhere)
(between 5th and 6th Aves.)

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