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Friday, July 29, 2011

Chung Ki Wa

Until fairly recently, I had gone through life somehow never having tried bu dae jigae. But last year, my roommate Kerrick on the (now defunct) Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas Mexican tour introduced me to it in Mexico City, so now I periodically get cravings for it. Such was the case this evening. Problem was, I didn’t feel like eating any of the ones I already knew around town—each one had a fatal flaw rendering it inappropriate for this evening. Having noticed some unfamiliar Korean restaurants in the Jackson Heights vicinity several days ago, I decided to go for a menu-browsing stroll. Chung Ki Wa won.

And boy, did it ever win. A quick scan of the menu elicited the information that they serve gobchang gui—a very promising sign. I only know of one other Korean restaurant in the New York area that serves this dish, automatically elevating Chung Ki Wa to rarefied status. But it was bu dae jigae night, so I ordered it and waited. Several minutes later I was presented with the most interesting and satisfying array of banchan I think I have ever been served. Whoever made these really knew what they were doing: they were scrupulously fresh and beautifully prepared. Often the solo diner gets short shrift in the banchan department, but not here. I was given at least eight dishes, including the standard fermented cabbage kimchi, oi kimchi (cucumber kimchi), some beef-less japchae, strips of vegetable pancake, a fresh kimchi made with romaine lettuce chunks, vinegared potato shreds (much like the northern Chinese cold dish), a light mushroom salad, and—my favorite—chunks of potato and pork knuckle preserved with red pepper and vinegar (I guess this makes it a kimchi)... fabulous!

I was just beginning to slow down on the banchan when the bu dae jigae arrived, bubbling hot in a stone dish (the kind used for dol sot bi bim bap) with some cellophane noodles forming a small mound in the center. Normally, I feel deprived if there aren’t some ramen noodles in my bu dae jigae, and a few pokes revealed that cellophane were the only noodles in there. Those pokes also revealed, however, that just below the surface of the fiery, smooth red broth, the bowl was packed solid with goodies. And I do not use the term “goodies” lightly: in addition to the standard shreds of kimchi, there were some decidedly unstandard chunks of wiener (not the grocery store kind, but tasting palpably of having come from a good, probably German, butcher) and Spam-like ham (but of the same high quality and provenance as the wieners), plus slices of rice cake, fish cake, chunks of obviously house-made tofu, and ultra-thin slices of dried beef and mushrooms. I did not feel deprived in the least. This was easily the best bu dae jigae I have ever had, and it’s difficult to imagine a better one. I can’t wait to try its “daddy” here—bu dae jeong gol, a casserole/hotpot of similar ingredients, but more of them.

It’s unusual for me to write about a New York restaurant after just one visit, but the quality of my meal was so uniformly high, it seems highly unlikely that it was a fluke. In cooler weather, I look forward to their gam ja tang (spicy stew of pork back and potato) almost assuredly taking its place as my favorite version around town. Chung Ki Wa is literally across the street from the 74th/Roosevelt/Broadway subway station, and it’s open 24 hours.

This place reminds me of why I used to like Korean restaurants so much.

Chung Ki Wa
40-06 74th St., Elmhurst 11373

(E, F, G, R, V, or 7 train to 74th St.-Broadway/Roosevelt Ave.-Jackson Heights)

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