Korean Restaurants in Hawaii
This was my month to get beyond the Korean plate lunch. Spicy chicken gizzards, anyone?
However, the Korean food everyone eats here has been domesticated, into a Hawaii-style plate lunch. Two scoops rice, with three or four sides, some of which are various kimchees and namul (Korean prepared vegetables), but others are Hawaii things like mac salad and defrosted frozen corn. Add mandoo, maybe barbecue chicken and, of course, kalbi.
Beef kalbi is a special-occasion food in Korea. But in Hawaii, grilled, thin-cut shortribs have become synonymous with Korean food.
Of course, there’s a wider world of Korean food, right at our doorstep. Forget kalbi. When was the last time you had hangover soup?
905 Keeaumoku St., 955-0646
Daily 10 a.m. to midnight // Free and valet parking // Major credit cards
Gary Pak introduced me to hangover soup. Due to deficiencies in my education, I can’t read Korean characters, and even the transliterations into English letters are hard to get my mind around. When Pak started calling haejangkuk “hangover soup,” suddenly the names of Korean foods became as vivid as the flavors.
In case you don’t recognize his name, Pak’s published four books. He’s a UH English professor, an adjunct prof of Korean Studies, and he’s made dozens of trips to Korea to teach at universities there.
When I met him in the ’80s, he was driving a cab. He’s still the same guy, even though Wikipedia calls him “one of the most important Asian Hawaiian writers.”
“I didn’t write that,” he says. “It’s embarrassing for a local guy to have something like that out there.”
Pak got me to meet him in a cordoned-off chunk of asphalt parking lot off Keeaumoku Street, in a restaurant that doesn’t have one word of English on its sign. He immediately ordered hangover soup.
It was one of the few times I felt unhappy not to have a hangover, because hangover soup may well have cured it—it’s a beef broth nearly milky with marrow and miso, richly flavored but not spicy, crammed with onion, celery and some deep-green Asian cabbage.
A website written in English by Hangkuk University students says, “By eating a bowl of haejangkuk, you can get all the nutritions you need for one meal.” Right.
“My father sometimes used to come home at 2 in the morning from drinking,” recalls Pak. “He’d wake up my mother: Haejang, haejang. She’d make this soup for him. He’d eat it before he went to sleep and get to work on time the next day.”
“You know how you know you’ve never done that?” said my wife later, when I told her the story. “You’re still married.”
Apparently Pak didn’t think the hangover soup was all the nutritions we needed for one meal, because he also ordered the house specialty, samgyepsal, “three-fat pork,” thin strips of pork belly with its three streaks of fat, like bacon. The waitress arrayed pieces of pork on a round metal grill she’d brought to the table. When grilled, we wrapped them in perilla leaves (called sesame leaves in Korea, but actually a relative of Japanese shiso) and we ate them with miso, chili paste and considerable pleasure.
“I know it’s lunch, but we need soju with this,” said Pak. An older lady came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, asked me for $6 and fetched us a small green bottle of soju from one of the nearby stores. “In Korea, that bottle would cost a dollar,” said Pak.
Soju is a relative of Japanese sochu, distilled from rice or barley or what have you. Essentially, it’s ethanol diluted with water.
It went so well with the three-fat pork, with everything on the table, really, that it suddenly seemed a revelation, perhaps more of a revelation each time we drained one of the little glasses you drink it from.
The table was full of panchan, the side dishes like bachelor kimchee and simmered mustard cabbage with plenty of kochukaru, red pepper powder. The calmest thing was the mul naengruyon, a light, cold soup with buckwheat noodles, hardboiled egg and cucumber, the noodles like soba but thinner, soft yet enjoyable to the bite, the whole package refreshing on a warm day in a gardenlike setting in the middle of a large parking lot, with dumpsters just on the other side of the flowered border.
The restaurant’s called Orine Sarangchae. Once you find the parking lot off Liona Street, you can’t miss it, especially at night, because the tree in the center is lit with twinkle lights.
Choon Chun Chicken B.B.Q.
1269 S. King St., 593-4499
Daily 3:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. (or 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., depending on who you ask) // Limited parking // Major credit cards
Once was not enough. “I’ll take you to the closest thing we have in Honolulu to a neighborhood restaurant in Korea,” said Pak. He e-mailed me to meet him, and his wife, Merle, at Chuncheon Tak Kalbi, at King and Birch.
When I arrived, the sign said Choon Chun Chicken B.B.Q. Same, same, apparently.
In the city of Chuncheon, there are streets lined with places selling only fried chicken, pickled daikon and beer. What else would we order? To get the thoroughly Korean experience, we got an order of spicy chicken gizzards as well.
The gizzards arrived soaked in a kochujang sauce, under a confetti of onion, daikon and bell pepper, seriously tasty, but formidable to chew. A gizzard is the chicken’s thick, muscular second stomach, handy for crushing food inside the chicken, but tiring to eat as a human.
The fried chicken, however, was a revelation. “It’s American food made Korean,” said Pak. Like the British taking rock‘n’roll and sending it back with Lennon, McCartney, Clapton and Keith Richards, the Koreans have taken our fried chicken and made it even better.
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.
Undeterred, I discovered something else: yukkejang, a shredded-beef soup, in a broth fortified with endless bean sprouts, glass noodles and green onion. Everything appears to have been cooked separately with kochujang, then put into the broth. The broth’s not hot, but everything else is. You take one bite, think it’s too much, are back in a minute for more.
All for a dollar more than the soondubu, $5.99. Forget I told you about this place. I still want a table.
Yuchen Korean Restaurant
1159 Kapiolani Blvd., 589-0022
Daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. // Free parking // Major credit cards
Located in the old Angelo Pietro space next to McKinley Carwash, Yuchun is attractive as small Korean restaurants go—clean, well-lighted, a nice collection of Koreana along the walls and window sills. Unfortunately, the pleasures end with the décor.
The restaurant specializes in “black noodles,” chik naengmyon, an iced summer noodle soup. I’d had naengmyon before, at Orine Sarangchae, a version made with buckwheat noodles, found it refreshing, the noodles wonderful in texture.
Chik naengmyon is made with arrowroot instead of buckwheat noodles. That may not be a good idea, as the noodles congeal into a gelatinous mass and are miserable to chew. Jellyfish is more fun to eat.
The noodles I could have coped with. We ordered two versions, one regular and one that came with the soup on the side, topped with raw fish in a spicy sauce. What fish? Hiding in the violently red sauce, I found cartilage and actual chunks of fish backbone. There may have been some fish flesh clinging to the bone, but this was inedible.
As a gesture to my dining companions, I also ordered things I presumed would be innocuous—beef bulgogi and pa-jeon, the green onion-seafood pancake. The beef bulgogi was sweet, but inoffensive. The pa-jeon, in the gloppy tradition of the noodles, was overbattered and undercooked.
This unsatisfying dinner for three was $68 with tip, including one 187ml bottle of Sutter Home chardonnay. What kind of Korean restaurant has no soju, and sells tiny bottles of bad California wine?
Give this one a miss.
Ah Lang, a.k.a. Angry Korean Lady
Imperial Plaza, 725 Kapiolani Blvd., 596-0600
Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. // Street and validated parking // Major credit cards
After four restaurants, I thought I was done. Then some friends called: “We found the perfect Korean hole in the wall, Ah Lang. Nicer than Cho Dang, great food and wait till you meet the Angry Korean Lady. Her name’s Won. She’s the Korean Betty Pang.”
The Angry Korean Lady? How could I resist? Especially since they’d already organized a dinner and said I could come, bring soju. “Be on time,” they said.
Ah Lang, though listed at Imperial Plaza on Kapiolani, is in the retail space along Cooke Street, and shares an exterior door with a nail salon. By the time I found it, I was 10 minutes late. Food was on the table. “Won said that, if we said 6:30, the food was going to be ready at 6:30 whether we were here or not.”
There were six of us and so much food, I had a hard time keeping track of it.
A sizzling oval platter of pork sautéed with onions, in a sauce smoky with peppers and buoyed by garlic.
Kimchee fried rice, chunky with fresh cut vegetables, topped with fried egg.
A vast round of pibimkooksu, noodles with julienne vegetables, in a sauce I think was enriched with egg.
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.