Koreatown K-town 32nd Street
Koreatown is not a tourist stop like Chinatown. It's pretty insulated still and likes its aloofness. You won't find any souvenir shops that carry Korean tchotchkes except during the World Cup. (Koreans are nuts about soccer and during the Cup the national pride kicks into high gear and you'll see the streets flooded with people wearing "Red Devil" shirts.) Basically, K-town consists of restaurants, karaoke bars and spas, and they are, as I mentioned earlier, almost always open which is really great for de-toxing after a long night of eating and boozing. Korean food, for those not in the know, is best known for table-grilled meat, kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage) and bibimbap (it literally means "mixed rice"), which my vegetarian friends love: a bevy of saut�ed seasonal vegetables and roots over a bed of rice served in a big bowl with chili paste and a fried egg. So without further ado, here's the cr�me de la cr�me of K-town!
Though it's not the oldest chip on the block, this one is the mother ship of all Korean restaurants. Kum Gang San is the most beautiful and the most fabled mountain in all of Korea (it's in North Korea) and like the name, this two-floor restaurant is grand and sprawling with artificial falling rocks and a waterfall. There's also a baby grand and sometimes they'll bring in a pianist or a traditional Korean harpist to help you work up your appetite. Their gigantic menu, like a cruise brochure, is chock full of options and pictures. It's a good place to go when you don't know what you want because KGS is famous for serving up consistently good dishes for any mood and occasion. They also have really good "banchan," small side dishes that you get for free with every Korean meal. It's not rude to ask for seconds of banchan, just so you know. Koreans do it all the time!
Shanghai Mong is my new favorite! It's only a couple months old but has already established a cult following thanks to the hip and cozy Chinoiserie setting and good food at good prices. As the name suggests, it serves Korean-Chinese cuisine. Chinese food is a staple in Korea but it tastes slightly different from the American version. There's a lot of "fried and sauced" varieties that are mouthwatering but I suggest you follow your "When in Rome" instinct and order JaJang Myun (noodles in black bean sauce) or Jjam Bong (noodles in spicy broth with seafood). They are just about the most popular dishes in Korea after kimchi. In America, they would be burgers and pizza. You don't get banchan here, just some kimchi and daikkon (pickled radish).
Wonjo, 23 W. 32nd St., (212) 695-5815
Wonjo is one of the last two BBQ joints in K-town that still fires up its grill with charcoal -- the other being New York Gom Tang House, the oldest Korean restaurant on the block in the old Bergdorf Goodman building across the street. Gas-grillin' is run of the mill on 32nd but if you want the real deal you should go here. They also have a decent sushi bar and baby octopus for the grill. So go for the surf 'n' turf action. It is "Yum-O" as Rachel Ray would say. I love the waitstaff here.
Gahm Mi Oak, 43 W. 32nd St., (212) 695-4113
This restaurant is famous for its kimchi and ox bone soup, a hangover cure devoured by all hard-drinking Korean men and women. If you are vegetarian, there's not much for you here. But I heard that their bibimbap is to die for!
Shilla, 37 W. 32nd St., (212) 967-1880
Shilla is also new. This three-story food emporium definitely flexes its muscles on many levels. The food is pretty stellar and the d�ecor is slick and modern and they also have a good selection of banchan. Here the waiters hurry about with headsets like publicists during Fashion Week. If I were the owner of Kum Gang San, which by the way is only two stores down, I'd watch out for Shilla.
Emo's Kimbap, 2 W. 32nd St., (212) 594-1466
Emo means aunt in Korean. Kimbap literally means "seaweed rice," basically the Korean equivalent of a sushi roll. This tiny hole in the wall makes sushi rolls laid with spicy squid, cheese or kimchi on the spot, to go. Emo also makes all-veggie rolls if this sounds too weird for you. Mmmm, makes me hungry just thinking about it!
If you are craving a big fat strip of grilled pork belly, look no further. This is the place. Not only is Kun Jip good for gas-BBQ-ing at your table, it serves delectable banchan and has all kinds other yummy Korean staples. I especially love their grilled mackerel and egg custard. There's always a wait here for dinner but it's well worth it.
Cho Dang Gol is one of my all time favorites and the only place on the list that's not on the main K-town drag. They have the freshest homemade tofu. Whenever I'm here I always get grilled pollock with spicy sauce, soondubu soup, which is a spicy soup made with soft culled tofu, and makguli, unfiltered milky rice wine. I love the down-home atmosphere and service, and the food is really, really good. In the winter, I think about coming here all the time.
Ah Rang is located on the second floor above Kun Jip and has a homey rustic feel and a good view of the strip. The menu is Korean tapas- and sushi-heavy so it's good for late night munching and drinking. I love coming here for some makguli and spicy snail or hwe, the Korean version of sashimi. Lunch and dinner are served buffet style. The selections are fabulous and fresh -- definitely a good bang for your buck. I had my last birthday catered from here and everyone loved it! Also, I think this is a great place for any Korean food neophyte because you can just sample dishes without making big commitments. Lastly, the waiters here are super-cute!
Mandoo Bar, 2 W. 32nd St., (212) 279-3075
Mandoo is Korean for dumpling and from the street you can look through the window and see uniformed Korean ladies making mandoo with different kinds stuffing at this cute, narrow eatery. Mandoo is more like Japanese gyoza in that it's lighter than the Chinese dumpling. The veggie mandoo is made with spinach skin. It's healthy and totally delish. Obviously mandoo is the main attraction here but they are also famous for a popular dish called, "Table Dukbokki." It's basically a casserole of rice cakes stirred in super-red, super-spicy chili sauce with chopped-up veggies and oden (fish cake) and ramen noodles (sans the sauce powder). They bring you a gas stove and a big ol' pot ready to go and you cook it on the table. This concoction, if you can believe it, is considered a snack and all Korean kids have grown up on it. You have to be at least half-Korean to like this dish; it's definitely not for everyone. In case you haven't noticed the pattern, Koreans are way into table cooking. But MB also has many other no-frills noodle dishes that are good. Don't foget to start out with their famous egg-fried tofu!
Han Gawi, 12 E. 32nd St., (212) 213-0077
Koreans are big-time meat lovers but there's also a gentler side to the peninsular cuisine and Han Gawi is an excellent example. This beautiful and serene all-vegetarian place is frequently placed at the top of the best vegetarian restaurant list by local magazines. Coming here is like time-traveling to another era: You have to take your shoes off and sit Indian-style. Whether you go prix-fix or a? la carte, every morsel is made with the freshest ingredients that are fit for a king, quite literally -- they specialize in dishes that were served in the royal palace back in the day. You'll either love this place or be slightly turned off by it -- sometimes the dishes can be a little baby food-y.
Woori Jip, 12 W. 32nd St., (212) 244-1115
Woori Jip means "our house" and this house is all about the cheap buffet and pre-packaged takeouts. This fast food joint is always hopping with young cute kids or workers on the go.
Woo Chon, 8-10 W. 36th St., (212) 695-0676
I almost forgot about Woo but I'm glad I didn't because the lady who owns this off-the-beaten-path nook is so nice. This is actually another joint that's not on 32nd. Last time I was here she brought me these delicious raw oysters on the house for no reason. They serve up Southern Korean fare and their array of banchan is plentiful and eclectic.
Han Ah Reum, 25 W. 32nd St., (212) 695-3283
Han Ah Reum is like the Stop & Shop of the Korean grocery chain scene in America. You can come here and stock up on your ramen noodles, mandoo and frozen eel, replace your old broken rice cooker and be cruised by creepy white guys... just kidding.
Koryo Books, 35 W. 32nd St., (212) 564-1844
If you are looking for Korean novels, cookbooks and magazines, this is the place. They also have a video room in the back where you can rent all the latest Korean new wave movies and popular TV shows on DVD.
Juvenex is by far the best spa in K-town. Korean spas are known for non-stop service, especially full-body exfoliations done by butch Korean ladies. They peel and peel until you are literally shedding skin on the floor. You haven't experienced a Korean spa treatment 'till you've been manhandled by a pair of strong woman-hands. Juvenex is also known for its jade (hot) igloo. This gem is open 24 hours and it's unisex. There's no kinky business here -- just fresh and clean clean.
Koreans go cuckoo for karaoke and that's no joke. There are tons of karaoke joints in K-town but Chorus is my favorite because their signage on the street has a singing dog coming out of Steven Tyler's mouth and also the decor is very Fifth Element. Each room is decked out with a disco ball and you can ask for tambourines that light up at the desk. They have songbooks in five different languages, including Farsi and English, and disposable gauze mike covers are provided for sanitary purposes.
Players is the sports bar in K-town. During the World Cup I came here to watch the Korea vs. Switzerland game but got turned away. The bouncers wouldn't let you in unless you had RSVP-ed and the place was packed to the gills. It's located directly below Juvenex, which is how I found out about it in the first place. I topped off a six-hour spa session with a nice cold cocktail at Players overlooking 32nd Street.
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