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Head up to Murray Hill for Korean-style BBQ pork

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When we invited our friends to dine with us at a Korean restaurant in Murray Hill, they wondered when Manhattan became our beat. Of course, we didn’t mean that Murray Hill. The one we were talking about is a section of Flushing that extends approximately from Union Street to Francis Lewis Boulevard for several blocks north and south of Northern Boulevard.

The similar names are not mere coincidence. The Murray family operated one of the original nurseries when horticulture was the name of the game in Flushing. They sold their holdings when residential development began in the area, and began dabbling in Manhattan real estate. That’s where the Murray part of the designation derived from. The Hill part is anyone’s guess. All we know is that today the nabe is a primarily Korean enclave, with a concentration of some of the most authentic and tasty Korean grub to be found on this side of the Pacific.

Tucked away, a few blocks south of the more obvious procession of Korean eateries along Northern, is a cluster of Korean restaurants that surround the Murray Hill Long Island Railroad station. This is great news for Manhattanites, as all they would have to do to get there is to hop on the train (Port Washington Line). We could see eating our way through all of them, but a good place to start is Hanjoo.

Han Joo has two specialties: Barbecued pork belly and arrowroot noodles in cold broth (naeng myun). Our first visit was for lunch. The barbecue seemed too elaborate and we were too cold for chilled broth, not to mention too tempted by the bargain-priced lunch specials. The table was laid with an impressive collection of banchan, those assorted tidbits essential to any Korean meal, including sliced fish balls (gefilte-like, but with more flavor), and a terrific grilled tofu. A word to the wise is that it is perfectly acceptable etiquette to ask for refills of any banchan you particularly fancy.

For lunch we settled on two of the specials, Dean Jang Jjigae and Daeji Bulgoki. Dean Jang Jjigae is a soup made with homemade bean paste, kimchi, pork vegetables and tofu. We requested a “medium” degree of spiciness. Medium might be a challenge to all but practiced flame swallowers. Apart from the heat, the flavors were well balanced, and the contents generous. With all the banchan you want, this is a real lunchtime bargain. Daeji Bulgoki, stir fried slices of pork with hot chili sauce, comes on a sizzling platter. This dish scores on spicy, salty, sweet and garlicky, and is another wallet-pleaser to boot.

Already primed and readied by our lunch foray, we couldn’t wait to see what was in store for dinner. We knew that we wanted to try their two signature items. Surprisingly, the banchan offered at the dinner hour were less substantial and enticing than at lunch. They were mostly various kimchees, pickles, and condiments (ssam-jang)—the stuff meant to be stuffed inside lettuce leaves with the bbq (ssam).

We warmed up with some of our favorite Korean snack foods before tackling the main event. Kimchi mandoo (dumplings) were both meaty and spicy, and we experimented with dipping them in the various condiments arranged around the table, all with excellent results. Hae Mu Pa Jeon was a worthy rendition of the always lovable Korean seafood and scallion pancakes. The Chap Chae, stir fried clear noodles with beef in vegetables, was bland and forgettable, but a good choice if you happen to have finicky children with you.

As soon as we ordered Do Ya Ji, a combo of their three versions of barbecued pork belly, a crystal slab was placed over the inset gas burner on the table to heat. In the meantime, we devoured the other signature dish, Mul Naeng Myun. Transparent noodles are arranged over a mound of a partially frozen (think shaved ice) tangy beef broth. It is topped with sliced beef, assorted veggies and hard-boiled egg. We can’t imagine a more refreshing meal for a hot summer evening. They also offer a spicy version of same.

The main event had arrived. Our server brought a sumptuous platter of three different style of pork (thin sliced, marinated medium sliced, and thick cut) and proceeded to grill it. The crystal grilling surface was position on a slant, allowing the rendered fat to run off into a catchment container. Kimchee was placed at the lowest end of the incline, allowing it to sizzle in the fat passing by.

As our pieces of meat cooked, we plucked them off with our chopsticks onto waiting lettuce leaves along with some grilled kimchee and varying assortments of condiments. When we remembered, we dipped the meat into first bean powder and then sesame oil, which is a traditional part of the ritual. Our server supervised all the grilling, leaving us only to contend with the assembling and eating.

All of the three little piggies were delicious. The thin sliced had extra crunch/caramelization. The medium sliced had extra flavor from the marination. The thick cut was just deliciously meaty. As pork belly goes, it was pretty lean and well-trimmed, keeping in mind that pork belly is not a lean cut of meat. We would agree that the three-way combo of barbecued pork is the must-have a Hanjoo.

The Bottom Line

Han Joo’s cuisine is both delicious and authentic. Their offerings can be adjusted to please lovers of extreme spiciness or to those who are spice adverse. If you’ve tried and enjoyed Korean barbecued beef, now you’ve got to try the pork, and Hanjoo is the place to do it.

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 qnsfoodie@aol.com.

Han Joo Chik Naeng Myun & BBQ

41-06 149th Place (Between 41st and Barclay avenues)

(718) 359-6888

Price Range: Lunch specials: $6.95 — $11.95, A la carte: $7.95 — $69.95 (all shareable)

Cuisine: Korean, specializing in BBQ pork and cold noodle soup

Setting: No frills utilitarian

Service: Attentive and accommodating

Hours: Monday - Sunday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Reservations: No

Alcohol: Wine beer & Soju

Parking: Valet or streetDress: Casual

Children: Welcome

Music: Recorded

Takeout: Yes

Credit cards: Yes

Noise level: Acceptable

Handicap accessible: Yes

WIFI: No

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