We set out to try real home-style Korean food at Jong Ga BBQ Restaurant on Northern Boulevard in Flushing. We were fortunate to have Rene Gloger in our party, a young woman who recently spent a year teaching English in Seoul. Her command of Korean, and knowledge of the cuisine paid off immediately.
Upon our arrival she ordered a bottle of makkeoli for the table, the Korean equivalent of nigori (unfiltered) sake. Although the beverage did not appear on the menu, our waitress brought it immediately. Makkeoli is a refreshing cloudy rice beverage with a kick that you drink out of bowls. For those who like a slightly sweet alcoholic beverage with their meals, it is an exotic departure from the familiar.
Ban chan, those items that exist in the gray area between hors d’oeuvres and condiments, arrived on cue. The spectrum of the offerings here was weighted almost exclusively towards the vegetarian. Of course, there was kimchi, the national dish of Korea, which, due to skyrocketing prices, is somewhat in short supply in Korea this year. Émigrés must count themselves lucky that there is no shortage here. Dotorimuk (Korean acorn jelly) lent seasonality to the collection of tiny plates. Other than that, the ban chan were disappointingly run-of-the-mill. No little fishies or any other kind of seafood.
We ordered jap chae at the insistence of Ben Gloger, who, at 10, was the junior member of our party. He is a young man whose palate is sophisticated beyond his years, and he knows what he likes. Jap chae is a stir fry of cellophane noodles with green onions, garlic, napa cabbage, mushrooms, carrots and slivers of boiled beef. It is a soothing dish, especially when other items on the table lean towards the incendiary, but this rendition was short on character.
Things heated up with the arrival of two versions of tofu soup. Soon doo boo was a luscious stew of soft tofu in a spicy broth. Dwen jan jji gae included firmer tofu and vegetables in broth with a more fermented flavor. Both got the attention of our taste buds without causing actual pain. We enjoyed the silken texture of the soo doo boo, but you can’t go wrong with either.
The barbecue is the real deal here, with smoldering charcoal inserted into the burner on the table. Our gal bi — marinated, thinly sliced short ribs — lived up to our expectations. We filled romaine lettuce leaves with the beef, roasted garlic, a dab of hot sauce, and an admittedly random assortment of the ban chan on the table, and rolled it up taco style. The meat was tender and flavorful, and rolling your own is always fun.
A gu jjim was the dish that drew us here. We had heard from several sources that this was THE place for spicy monkfish stew. We love monkfish, although due to its endangered status we try to keep our consumption very occasional. This was going to be one of those occasions.
The a gu jim arrived mounded on an oblong platter. Bright yellow mung bean sprouts made up the lion’s share of the vegetable component, with hefty hunks of monkfish throughout. The thick red sauce was salty, garlicky, briny and spicy, but not that spicy. We suspect that the degree of spiciness in both this dish and the earlier soups was adjusted to reflect the restaurant’s perception of Westerners’ tolerance for heat. Along with the monkfish, there was another sea creature, sea squirt (mideodeok), featured in the stew. It came in the form of inch and a half long flat pods that tapered at one end with brain-like convolutions on the surface. The exterior was tough and seemingly inedible, but when torn open, contained a dab of soft paste whose taste is difficult to pinpoint in the assertive sauce. We’ve tried sea squirt before, and it is usually alarmingly iodiney and bitter. Perhaps this preparation tones it down. All in all, the dish was palatable, and a new experience, but not one we’re clamoring to repeat.
The Bottom Line
We give Jong Ga high marks for using real charcoal, but low marks for boring ban chan. We give them high marks for offering a wide range of traditional and home-style Korean dishes beyond barbecue, but low marks for assuming they should tone down the spice for a bunch of Anglos. On the lengthy strip of Northern Boulevard where so many Korean restaurants have made their home, we could call this middle-of-the-road.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Jong Ga BBQ Restaurant
194-03 Northern Blvd., Flushing
Price Range: Appetizers $4.95—5.95; entrees $10.95–$29.95; family-style hot pots and barbecue $18.95–$39.95
Setting: Medium-sized, nondescript Korean restaurant
Service: Efficient, accommodating and mostly fluent in English
Hours: Lunch & dinner daily
Alcohol: Wine & beer license
Credit Cards: Yes
Noise Level: Acceptable
Handicap Accessible: Yes
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