Monday, April 19, 2010

Under the Green Tent: Korean Street Food - Review of Pocha 32

Green Tent.

This article originally appeared on The Gotham Palate.

Imagine yourself bundled up in layers in the dead of winter, sitting on a stool outdoors under a plastic green tent with gurgling pots of kimchi-infused casseroles, soups and spices mingling around you. Soju bottle in hand, pouring your sunbaenim (elder, in Korean) a shot and knocking the vodka-like substance back with a hearty "Kanbei!"...followed by a loud, vehement clearing of the throat. Slurping down ramyun like it was a race to the finish, burning your tongue in the process because you want to eat the noodles while they're not soggy.

That's a typical food stall scenario in Korea, where street food is elevated to the highest form of trendy, home-spun comfort. Pocha 32's decor reminded me of that, bringing the outdoors inside with perforated green tents, pictures of patrons strewn on the walls with nothing but brightly colored paper clips holding them up. My friend and I sat all the way in the back since it was crowded. But at 7:45ish, that was expected. Busy is good.

Blaring through the sound system: V.I.'s "Strong Baby," Epik High's "One" and a female cover of Taeyang's "Look Only At Me." Is it sad that I knew the set list? The lights progressively dimmed more and more as the night wore on. Around 9:30 p.m., the music changed from Kpop hits to dancehall electronica beats, and the lights (made of bottle caps) from green-tinted to white and blue Christmas lights. As if on cue. Turns out it was someone's birthday. Cool way to toast a friend.


I enjoyed the appetizers, huge strips of carrots and cucumbers (although "stalks" would be a more accurate description) and ssamjang, or an orange-red sauce made of fermented bean curd and red pepper paste. The fresh ssamjang complemented the vegetables nicely and especially paired well with the cucumbers, the carrots being sweeter. [It's the same hot sauce as the one at Gahm Mi Oak, only they serve it with hot chili peppers and lettuce.]

And then we waited. And waited. I didn't really keep track of how long it took before our first dish showed up, but it was more than 30 minutes. The waiter said the chef was backlogged since they were so busy (and, it seems, understaffed). He hadn't even started on our order yet! I understand that good food takes it sweet time to prepare, but it's still an inefficient system. And when we cancelled an order for Chicken and Korean noodles, there must have been miscommunication between the waiters that served us since we still got a bill charging us for it. (Keep in mind the chef hadn't even started on our order yet at this time). Luckily, we were able to fix that mistake, but this error kind of dampened my celebratory mood.

Budae Chigae.

Fortunately, the Budae Chigae was worth the inordinate wait. This Korean "army stew" included classic ingredients, such as kimchi, onions, tofu and ttokk (small flat rice cakes), along with bites of sausage, Spam and bulgolgi. I think my favorite version so far is still Kunjip's. But in any case, it was chock full of fireball flavor. I don't think we understood how big the serving size was going to be. This casserole stew is meant to be shared with a big party. At $19.99, it's way too much food to consume for two people! We needed at least 6 people to conquer that Budae Chigae.


The Ddukbokki dish with kimchi and tofu ($9.99) was definitely the winner of the night - soft yet firm and chewy rice cakes. The star ingredient here is Korean hot pepper paste. Without that, you're a fish out of water. We cracked open a bottle of Pomegranate Soju Wine ($18.99) but couldn't even finish the whole thing. I'm sure our waiter meant to be obliging when he recommended the pom soju. He probably picked us out as inexperienced soju drinkers (which we are). However, I don't need sickly sweet things to appease my non-Korean palate. It doesn't take a wine sommelier to realize that pomegranate did not complement the intense red hot pepper spiciness of our dishes. I would go with the Jinro Chamisul Original Soju ($13.99) or the communal Watermelon Soju bowl ($24.99).

To make it worth the splurge, I'm definitely bringing more people (and a Korean friend!) for Round 2. Maybe then the staff would take us seriously.

Blue Blur.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. Despite the subpar service, I'm such a sucker for ddukbokki and budae chigae that I'm willing to give Pocha another chance.

Pocha 32
15 W 32nd St
2nd Fl
New York, NY 10001

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