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Monday, January 16, 2012

Hahm Ji Bach (함지박)

This evening I joined Pete and his charming friend Youlim for a meal at Hahm Ji Bach (함지박), just a stone's throw from the Murray Hill LIRR station in Flushing. I'm glad I did; it's the best Korean meal I've had in a very long time – maybe ever.

Hahm Ji Bach specializes in meat dishes, barbecue in particular. So, following our waitress's excellent suggestions, we ordered four barbecue items, plus a pa jeon to start. Somehow, a seafood bibimbap got ordered, too...because we just didn't have quite enough food for the three of us, I'm sure.

A stunning array of banchan instantly appeared, all beautifully prepared (made in-house, of course). (Photos by Pete)

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There were several kinds of kimchi, including a particularly nice one made with thin slices of the knobby stem of a mustard plant, the kind from which the Chinese make their preserved vegetable. Curiously absent was the normal fermented kimchi made with white cabbage...I didn't miss it one bit. There were a couple of seafood banchan, too, including chunks of crab in red pepper, and bits of deep-fried squid. The haemool pajeon (해물파전 – seafood pancake) was, for me the perfect combination of crisp on the outside and just chewy and moist enough on the inside – the best I've had in a long time. And the dipping sauce – indeed, all the dipping sauces here – was particularly delicious.

There is almost always something slightly disappointing to me about Korean barbecue. It never seems to quite satisfy, or live up to the hype, or something. Such was not the case here. Dol samgyupsal (돌삼겹살), thick slabs of unmarinated pork belly, is something of a house specialty.

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It was delicious, as much for the meat itself, carefully tended by the amazingly attentive wait staff, as the wonderful condiments and side items. Hahm Ji Bach is one of the rare establishments that offers ultra-thin, circular slices of daikon radish to wrap and eat barbecued meats with, and it's the perfect way to eat samgyupsal. That is, with some of one of the excellent dipping sauces and some shredded scallion. Hyomit gui (혀밑구 이) – delicate, thin slices of beef tongue (also unmarinated) – was perfection when simply dipped in gireumjang (기름장), a sauce of sesame oil and salt. Galbi gui (or, more specifically, yang nyum galbi gui –양념갈비구이) is the best galbi I've had anywhere.

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Aside from the usual sugar and soy sauce, I’m not sure what's in the marinade, but I suspect one of the ingredients is crack. The wait staff saw to it that the pieces were perfectly cooked, and the wonderful house-made ssamjang (쌈장 - spicy bean paste) is the perfect sauce for dipping, before wrapping it in a frilly lettuce leaf and popping it in ones mouth. (Bliss ensues.)

We saw ori rohsu gui (오리로스구이) – dark-ish discs of some meat of indeterminate origin – at a neighboring table and inquired as to what it was. Upon learning it was duck, we decided to order that, too.

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An excellent decision. Although unmarinated, the meat was tender and flavorful, and a delightful change of pace. The only way any of it could have been improved would have been by grilling over wood embers instead of on gas grills. (Is there any Korean barbecue in Flushing that uses wood embers? Yanbian, yes, but I don't know of any Korean places.)

Somewhere amidst this avalanche of food, the haemul dolsot (해물돌솥 – seafood mixed with rice in a hot stone pot) surreptitiously appeared. It was fine, although a bit difficult to appreciate amidst all the barbecued meat. A simple, lovely beef and cabbage soup was also brought as something to sip between courses. To help wash this all down was a cucumber-infused soju. Quite mellow and smooth – my new favorite soju. And capping off this mammoth repast was a cup of pumpkin sikhye (식혜), a punch made with fermented rice. Not the kind of thing I normally like, but it was surprisingly light and refreshing. And at that point, we definitely needed some "refreshing"!

Satisfaction comes at a price, however. The barbecue dishes are on the expensive side. But - and I almost never feel this way about Korean barbecue - considering the high quality of the ingredients and marvelous attention to preparation, it's absolutely worth it. The prepared main dishes, on the other hand, are quite reasonably priced—in line with, or even a dollar or two less than, other Korean restaurants in Queens.

Hahm Ji Bach (함지박)
41-08 149 Pl., Flushing 11355

(LIRR Port Washington branch to Murray Hill, or 7 train to Flushing-Main St., then the Q15 or Q15A bus to 150 St. (Murray Hill LIRR station). Then 1 block south on 149th Pl.)

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