Korean Restaurants in Hawaii
This was my month to get beyond the Korean plate lunch. Spicy chicken gizzards, anyone?
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Some fried tofu slathered in kochujang that no one remembered ordering, but arrived anyway and was consumed happily.
A marvel of a pa-jeon, not a pancake, really, it was more like a round raft of green onion and seafood held together by a bare minimum of jeon batter, staying intact just long enough for you to dip it into shoyu-sesame-vinegar and get it into your mouth.
Korean chicken wings. I was skeptical these were really Korean food, but checked. It’s a trendy Korean dish, ton tak. Ah Lang’s come in kochujang-based sauce dotted with green onion and sesame, lots of ginger. Saucy, but not sticky. Powerful, but not obvious. Forget Buffalo, get your chicken wings on Cooke Street.
Finally, steamed kalbi. I know I promised not to eat any kalbi, but I hadn’t ordered the food, and I started eating it without knowing what it was. Not the usual, anyway, it was thick, rich shortribs, simmered in a Korean stew, not a fiery red one, but a deep beef broth base with every kind of vegetable, plus orange and lemon rind, until all the flavors melded and the meat nearly fell apart in your mouth. You didn’t chew it, exactly, you just coped with a sudden flood of warm, soft, rich flavors with a Korean kick. More, please.
The older waitress seemed pleasant, if not overattentive. “She isn’t the Angry Korean lady,” said my friends. “Won’s in the kitchen.”
I’ve dealt with difficult chefs before, though never one who’d put a notice on the table headed, “Angry Korean Lady,” warning customers if she was busy to take care of themselves.
I picked up a bottle of soju from the table—some of my more wimpy friends had switched to beer. Grabbed a clean glass from the pantry rack. Parted the noren on my way into the kitchen. “Like some soju?” I asked the thin, younger woman in a black apron and blue jeans torn at one knee.
Won Lam decided right then and there to take a soju break. Drained it, wiped her mouth, said thank you. Actually smiled.
Later, she came out of the kitchen. After another fervent soju toast, she popped a CD into a boom box. “I recorded this for my boyfriend’s birthday. Nine hours straight, because that was all the studio time I could afford.”
She sang along. No, more accurately, she threw herself into a Korean song, gestures, sustained notes, brief pause during the instrumental to give a quick English translation of the lyrics, slambang finish. The dining room, all of about 10 people, went nuts.
One of my friends is in the music business. “You know, I could sell a CD called Angry Korean Lady. I could,” he said.
“I don’t sell my CD,” said Won. “It’s only for my boyfriend.”
Dinner for six was $150, though by the time my friends got through throwing money on the table there was, in addition, a considerable tip.
With uncharacteristic presence of mind, I shot a video of Won singing. You can watch it at honolulumagazine.com.
To taste the food, however, you’re going to have to get yourself to Ah Lang, though Won insisted to me that she was officially changing the name to Angry Korean Lady. “It’s my restaurant, I can do what I like.” Forewarned is forearmed.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.