A Mini Food Tour Through Korea Town

Cows feet.jpg
Photos by Mai Pham
The English translation was "cow's feet," but it was just a beef shank soup with tendon at Korean Diner.
Just because I'm Asian doesn't mean I can read Korean. So if you take me out of my comfort zone and into the Korea Town (K-Town)/Spring Branch area of Houston, I'm just as lost as anyone else who can't read Korean signage.

It's for this exact reason that I have very little knowledge of Houston's "Long Point," or K-Town area. But thanks to Twitter, and a short debate about whether Korean service in Long Point is better than service in Chinatown/Bellaire Blvd Asian restaurants, I was going to get a crash course in K-Town eating. Chris Frankel, a bartender at Anvil who is of mixed Korean heritage, agreed to take me on K-Town food tour, just to see if the service was any different. Total. Score!

Frankel ended up corralling a small group of his foodie friends that included someone who thinks she's married to food (we will call her Liz), Houston's very own Master Chef contestant, Alvin Schultz, and Sous Chef John, whose day job involves churning out Indian cuisine at Pondicheri.

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Korean Diner's neon sign is easily recognizable among a sea of Korean characters.
To start, Frankel picked a casual restaurant, Han Mi Jung, or Korean Diner, as the meeting point and first stop on our tour. A place he said he likes to go to for a quick meal or takeout, it was easy to find with prominent neon signage saying "Korean Diner." The five of us met briefly before getting down to the difficult business of choosing what to eat.

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One of my favorites, a Korean noodle stir fry made of glutinous sweet potato noodles.
We settled on a classic stir-fried Korean sweet potato noodle called jap chae, cold buckwheat noodles in broth, or mool naeng myung, and a hot pot soup made with a sort of curdly ground soy pulp stew, or kongbiji jigae. Liz specifically wanted to order kongbiji jigaebecause she said it was hard to find.

I was puzzled by an item on the menu that was translated into English as "cow's foot," so I asked the Korean waitress what it was. She nodded her head and replied something like "cow's feet, very good, yes" but the next thing you know, the cow's feet dish had arrived at our table.

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Most Korean restaurants give you a side dish assortment, called banchan, when you have dinner.
The boiling soup-like dish came out the same way that you often see sukiyaki served, in a shiny bowl, set atop a small burner, and bubbling hot. Flavor-wise, there was a very slight gaminess to this mildly beef flavored soup, and the "cow's feet" in fact turned out to be thin slices of beef shank and tendon. It was interesting to taste, and not unpleasant, but it probably won't make my list of go-to Korean dishes anytime soon.

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The cute interior at Soju Bang.
Moving on, we decided to head to Soju Bang (10049 Long Point Rd., 713-722-0578), a Korean drinking bar where the drink of choice is -- surprise, surprise -- soju. Milder in flavor than sake, the soju is a distilled rice beverage that goes down the throat warm and smooth, even though it's usually served cold.

Walking into the rather nondescript place, I loved the rice paper wall partitions, the wooden tables and benches with the festive red pillows, and the dim, yellow paper lantern lighting. Although it was pretty empty on a Monday night, some upbeat K-pop music was playing in the background, and I could see how a place like this would appeal as a drinking bar.

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Soju is usually served in the bottle, which you then pour into a shot glass, like this one.
The menu was pretty extensive, but it was mostly "drinking" type food, and the waitress, taking a look at our mixed group, suggested a lot of American, easy-to-eat fried dishes, like chicken strips. She also seemed to be in an unusual hurry, so we told her we'd call her when we were ready to order. Apparently, most Korean restaurants have a call button you can push when you want service.

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Korean black bean noodle, jajangmyeon, was pretty good at Soju Bang.
Of the three dishes we ordered at Soju Bang, a blackbean noodle dish called jajangmyeon, an udon-like soup dish called kalgooksu, and the some other spicy soup that I don't remember, I enjoyed the kalgooksu the best. It reminded me of Japanese udon and the broth was creamy and savory.

Frankel thought the jajangmyeon was pretty good, too, but I think we were all ready for the main event at that point, so we headed for our final destination of the night, Nam Gang, for traditional Korean BBQ.

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Service at Nam Gang. It's technically do-it-yourself barbecue, but the ladies did everything for us.
The Korean ladies at Nam Gang didn't speak much English, but here, the service was noticeably good. The ladies were nice and attentive, and even though the dishes we ordered -- spicy pork, boneless kalbi shortribs, lamb chops -- came out raw so that it could be cooked at the table, one of the ladies stood at the table turning the meat over until it was all cooked and ready to eat. In other words, we didn't have to lift a finger but to pick up the cooked food and eat to our heart's content.

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Somebody ordered lamp chops? Oh yes, here they are, nicely presented and ready to barbecue.
We didn't once need to use a button to call anyone, and the food was excellent, from the kalbi short ribs, to the savory spicy pork, to the oyster potato pancake. Surprisingly my favorite part of the meal was a steamed egg dish, served as part of the side dishes, or banchan. I'd never had it before, and it tasted like a warm and fluffy savory egg custard, washing down well with the sweet and spicy flavors of the barbecued meat.

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Steamed egg banchan comes in a hot stone pot, at Nam Gang.
So, did Korean service beat out service in our Chinatown on Bellaire Boulevard? I would say that on the whole, there was more attentiveness, more smiles, and more of a welcome, most especially at the barbecue house.

But my original premise about Asian service was limited to restaurants where the average dish cost is under $10, and none of the restaurants we visited fell into that price range. In fact, our per-head cost at the end of the night was about $57 per person, much higher than what you'd pay for just about anything in Chinatown.

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Spicy Korean barbecue pork cooking on the table.
In the end, the trip to K-Town was more about the food, and being with people who enjoy food than anything else. K-Town is over there in Long Point, just waiting for people to discover it, and now that I have, I'm already plotting my next trip out there.



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Location Info

Nam Gang

1411-A Gessner, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


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19 comments
PuroSB13
PuroSB13

These korean pussies wont come into the mexican side of Spring Bkranchh

Jodie E
Jodie E

This is such a great resource for an area I've barely delved into and want so much to know about! Thank you, Mai!

Christine Ha
Christine Ha

Oh, and one more thing.  The fact that you only push the call button when asking for someone to come to the table is actually a sign of good service.  Koreans believe in letting you dine in peace with your companions and will only come when called.  None of that pesky, repetitive "Is everything okay?" here.

Christine Ha
Christine Ha

Il Me jung is not what it used to be after the owners changed some years ago.  The last few times I dined there, the food was subpar at best.  Good choice with Nam Gang though--some of the best Korean BBQ in Houston.  Sadly, the Korean food scene here is not as good as Dallas'.  But if you ever go to L.A., you will find some of the best Korean food this side of the Pacific.  Oh, and another place to try is Elephant Garden which is actually located in Sugar Land.  They're the sister restaurant to Mandarin Cafe but, I think, better.  Get the spicy seafood soup and black bean noodles.

Floatdub
Floatdub

Rolling in to K-TownBibimbap & Bulgogi

Ruthie J M
Ruthie J M

Great write-up, Mai! I'd like to get to know the Korean noodle scene better. Mmmm, noodles.

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

Mul naengmyung was my favorite dish for Korean summers. Kamjatang is a favorite for winter, but I can't find anyplace in Houston that serves it. Maybe Chris Frankel knows?

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Yes, please. But it would be dolsot bimbimbap and a kalbi para mi!

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Thanks, Ruthie!  Jap Chae used to be my favorite Korean noodle, but lately that's been ousted by the cold-sweet-spicy naengmyung.  For noodle soup, the kalgooksu soup is really yummy, very close to Japanese udon but with heartier broth (udon broth is usually a clear consomee). The jajangmyeon black bean noodle seems to be a favorite among Koreans, but maybe I haven't had a really good one, because I would prefer a good Chinese Chow Fun over it any day.  And that about sums up my rudimentary knowledge of Korean noodle. Hoping to learn more soon, too.

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

I've been to most korean joints around Houston (including Korean Noodle House and Il Me Jung), but have never seen kamjatang (aka gamjatang) on the menu...

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Definitely hit up @csfrankel or @married2food, they are both well-versed in food out in Long Point.

I've been looking for new places to try as well. Next on my list: Korean Noodle House and Il Me Jung, but I don't know if these places have what you're looking for. Will report back.

trisch
trisch

I have a hard time liking Korean jajangmyeon as well, mostly because one of my favorite dishes growing up was Chinese zhajiangmian, which is a similar dish but with a much lighter touch on the salted black beans and often a good proportion of ground pork in the sauce as well.  By comparison, jajangmyeon always seems too heavy and salty.

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

That's a tough battle for jajangmyeon to win, since chow fun is so deliciously pan-fried!

But the best jajangmyeon I've had is home-made; I've yet to find a great rendition yet at any Houston restaurant... yet. I suppose the version at Korean Noodle House is the best I've had so far, if only because of the housemade noodles.

Floatdub
Floatdub

"They have prepared her a dish from the non-translated page!!"

--Sideshow Mel

Man, that episode just keeps on giving. So spot on.

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

Oh - I'm actually half-Korean! 

A lot of my knowledge comes from my mom's home recipes. I love naengmyeon and kalgooksu too - with the latter, a lot of times at home we used to just have "gooksu", which is without broth: just fresh noodles at room temperature, a drizzle of sesame oil, a sprinkle of sesame seeds, and your favorite kimchi (I usually go either plain cabbage, or cucumber). Really simple, really delicious. And homemade jajangmyeon was usually fresh noodles, the same sauce but a bit thicker and less runny, and studded with goodies like cubed potato. And oh yes, more meat.

My fave place was actually the briefly opened Korea Garden Grille on Bellaire, but they closed after the owner decided to go overseas to do missionary work. Our family spot was always Korea Garden off Long Point, but mainly because we'd gone there since my siblings and I were little and they always gave us freebies (but all the best stuff was at home, so I don't know if I'm the most qualified person to ask ; )

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

I've had the jajangmyeon at that dumpling place! The sauce is super deep black. It's good for what it is, meaning, the noodles were good, the sauce was flavored correctly, but it's just not something I'm going to find myself craving. And, the version at Soju Bang was better. Now, the naengmyeon is another story -- totally unforgettable. And the kalgooksu I will crave when I want a hearty, savory, slurpable noodle soup.

Btw, thanks for sharing, and may I ask how you know so much about Korean food? Do you have any other fave haunts out in Long Point?

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

That is interesting, because "myeon" (or "myun") in Korean means "noodle". I wonder if it's the same with "zhajiangmian"...

Incidentally, one of the other places that I know serves jajangmyeon is the dumpling place next door to Arirang off of Bellaire. My theory is the Korean owners intended it as a Chinese-style Korean restaurant (if that makes sense), hence the heavy focus of dim-sum-like dumplings and a couple of sauced-up beefy/porky noodle dishes.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Interesting how both dishes are very closely named phonetically. I wonder if one gave rise to the other, since they are both black bean noodles? I think I've had the Chinese version you speak of and I would have to agree that I prefer milder with more meat. But we shall see. Korean Noodle House has come up several times this week and I think it's calling me.

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