Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Kunjip: Stew on This

This article originally appeared on The Gotham Palate.

If Koreatown was a high school, Kunjip would be the popular kid. It's one of Koreatown's more established late-night standbys and the go-to place for all things concerning Korean cuisine. And everyone knows it. The restaurant, which means "big house" in Korean, never lacks customers. From your first step inside, a menu is shoved in your face. Before you even get a table, you've probably already placed your order.

Budae Chigae.

This time around, I had the Budae Chigae ($12.95), which translates into "army stew" in Korean. It's a thick soup made with spicy kimchi, ramen noodles, sausages, spam, rice cakes and tofu. The cool part was that it came served on top of an individual burner that kept the whole thing hot the entire time. And trust me, it gets to your heart in more than one way. Heartburn, anyone? If the red color wasn't enough of an indication, your innards will feel it after slurping several mouthfuls of this deliciously spicy stew. If the weather outside is leaving you frosty, after feastong on this dish, you won't be chilly anymore. It's not for the faint of stomach, however. Chances are this classic cold-weather dish will have you sweating all over (in a good way).

Budae Chigae, Aflame.

Budae chigae originated during the Korean war when meat (and food) in Seoul, South Korea, was scarce. People used the surplus foods from U.S. Army bases in the Uijeongbu vicinity, incorporating canned ham (Spam) and hot dogs into their traditional spicy soups peppered with kimchi and gochujang (red chili paste). These days, the dish is still going strong in South Korea, where creative minds now make budae chigae with ingredients like American cheese, minari (dropwort), onions, tteok, mushrooms, macaroni, chili peppers and in-season vegetables.

Suk-Uh Chigae.

My friend had the Suk-Uh Chigae ($13.95), or spicy mixed seafood and vegetables stew, which had a plentiful assortment of seafood favorites, like mussels, clams and squid. Hot and fiery!

Gyeran Jjim.

The restaurant makes good HaeMool Pajun, or seafood pancake (Small $9.95, Large $14.95), Gopdol Bibimbap ($13.95), or rice on a heated stone pot with vegetables, ground beef and egg, and Gyeran Jjim (steamed egg with scallions), which we had the pleasure of consuming as one of our banchan appetizers.

We witnessed long lines to get in during lunchtime on the weekends (and equally long lines for the ladies' room). Inside is a flurry of activity with harried waiters balancing hot, piping dishes. We had to flag down a waiter to refill our water glasses, and the waitstaff seemed to be in a hurry to get us out as soon as possible, but I'll cut them some slack since the high volume of customers can certainly be distracting.

Kunjip offers more than 80 dishes - from BBQ to casseroles - so you'll never be at a loss for trying something different. The picture menu is especially helpful (and tempting!) for those new to eating Korean cuisine. As for the lunch specials, I want to try the Gopdol Bibimbap+DeonJang/Soondubu Chigae combination, which comes with ground vegetables and egg in a hot pot and bean paste/spicy soft tofu stew ($12.95). Other tasty options abound, most for under $9, including Sulungtang (ox bone soup with sliced beef) and Kam Ja Tang (spicy pork bone and potato stew).

Am I coming back? Is that even a question at this point? No doubt.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars. I know I'm being generous with the 4+ stars lately, but I can't help that I usually choose tasty finds. With wallets so lean, why waste your time on anything less, right?

9 W. 32nd St
New York, NY 10001