Korean Restaurants in Hawaii
This was my month to get beyond the Korean plate lunch. Spicy chicken gizzards, anyone?
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It’s small—chickens are not overgrown to American standards in Korea—unbreaded, and, I’m guessing here, deep-fried twice and rested between. It comes out golden, not at all greasy, the skin thoroughly crispy, delicious.
With Pak ordering, we got some rich slices of deep-brown sausage. Pak’s wife glossed it for me: “Innards, blood, rice.” There was a pile of beige, chopped-up stuff on top of the sausage. It was something more or less meaty, simmered long, apparently, but still cartilaginous, though not as tough to chew as chicken gizzards. “Pig ear,” said Merle. A first for me.
Next, something more familiar, pa-jeon. Pa is green onion, jeon (pronounced and usually spelled in Hawaii jun) is a pancake. In addition to green onion, this one had shrimp and bits of squid.
“Not soju with this,” said Pak. “People usually drink makkoli.” Makkoli is rice wine, cloudy with rice particles, slightly carbonated, sweet but with a weird aftertaste. “Like rotten rice?” asked Merle. “That’s how it’s supposed to taste.”
Pour me another glass of soju.
Pak had one more surprise: budae jjigae, army camp stew. “During the war, people would collect scraps from the American Army bases, get what they could, and make a stew,” he said.
In a broth red with kochukaru, the pepper powder, swam green onions, nori, wonbok, meatballs, Spam and hot dogs. The noodles? A brick of instant ramen noodles plopped into the hot broth to cook.
“Needless to say, this isn’t high-end food,” said Pak. “It’s nostalgic comfort food, very popular.”
And surprisingly good—familiar tastes lifted up by passionate Korean-style stewing.
Dinner for three—we ordered too much and finished all but the pig ear, drank two small bottles of soju and Merle made a dent in the makkoli—was $100 with tip.
Cho Dang Restaurant
451 Piikoi St., 591-0530
Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
I am not sure I want to tell you about Cho Dang, which bills itself, right there in black and white on the menu, as “Hawaii’s Best Restaurant.”
No, of course, it isn’t. Still, I am fond of this 30-seat hole-in-the-wall, with its mostly matching chairs and tables, its pumpkin-orange walls dotted with pictures of food in plastic page protectors and a random collection of art prints.
The service is pretty much “whattayawant,” banged down in front of you.
I’ve taken many people to lunch there, because it’s easy to find, in a strip mall near Ala Moana Center, with parking. I always pick up the check, because Cho Dang has an “All-Day Special” menu, starting at $4.99.
That’s $4.99 for a whole lunch: rice, an array of panchan (kimchees, namuls, glass noodles) and such delights as soondubu. That’s one of the few dishes that sounds more memorable in Korean—soon doo boo—than in English, soft tofu soup.
I love the way soondubu arrives in its thick black ceramic bowl, bubbling away, red as a valentine, with soft waves of silken tofu. There are layers of flavor here, a light seafood broth, sautéed pork and kimchee and cabbage, green onion and, need I mention, red-pepper powder and garlic.
I thought I’d discovered it. Then, when I’d tell people, I’d find out for many it was already a favorite food.