Koreatown is booming, with restaurants debuting all along 32nd and 35th streets. Many offer previously unobtainable specialties. Mandoo Bar (2 West 32nd Street, 279-3075) stuffs nine kinds of dumplings right in the front window. Ahp Ku Jung (10 West 32nd Street, 594-4963) specializes in dishes featuring ginseng, while Cho Dang Gol (55 West 35th Street, 695-8222) ladles creamy homemade bean curd. Most novel of all is Okryukwan, the city’s first North Korean eatery. It’s named after a 3800-seat noodle joint run by the Communist Party in the capital city of Pyongyang. When Japan – based Korean investors opened a wildly popular franchise in Seoul last May, Newsweek reported it as evidence of North-South rapprochement. Now we have one, too, so it’s your turn to vote with your chopsticks.
Bottles of North Korean liquor garnish the front window, but whether sublime or headache – inducing, you’ll never find out—they’re for display purposes only. Above the front door is a panoramic shot of the sprawling Pyongyang original, which looks like a giant monastery for noodle worshippers. The interior design motif deploys lacquered sections of tree stump, and the large dining room telescopes into a series of semiprivate rooms on two levels. Sadly, there are no red banners or posters of Kim Jong Il exhorting you to higher levels of production.
Like many a cash-strapped populace, North Koreans have developed a particular fondness for organ meats. Garnished with raw garlic and green chiles, Okrukuan jonghaf soon dae ($17.95) is a generous platter of northern favorites, including steamed blood sausage, slivers of boiled beef intestine, and a sliced roll of compressed pig’s feet, enough for four or five diners. The blood sausage, in particular, is mind-blowingly good. Crazed with mung-bean vermicelli that lighten and lubricate, this product has none of the dark intensity of Spanish blood sausage. Coat it with the sea – salt – and – red – pepper condiment, and you might forget you’re eating gore.
Naengmyun are the North’s favorite noodles, made of buckwheat, potato, and wheat flour, in proportions distinctive to each part of the nation. Okryukwan’s, fine as angel hair and favoring the potato, are available in several cold and hot preparations. Though the cold – broth noodles ($8.95) are the most characteristically northern, I preferred hamheung hwe naengmyun ($10.95), served with raw skate marinated in a smooth chile sauce in the style of Hamhung. The chewy cartilage is the best part. The bowl is rounded out with shredded zucchini skin, scallions, and sweet pickled cabbage, with a boiled half – egg riding shotgun on top.
Like the South Koreans, northerners are dumpling fanciers. Not content with the modest – size ones made south of the 38th parallel, they turn out magnificent fist-sized dough purses that can be had two to a plate naked ($5.95) or in a milky garlic soup ($8.95). Pick the soup. Other appealing oddities include an unfiltered rice wine called mikkoli served in a crock with a ladle, and a soup on the lunch menu (available anytime) featuring therapeutic mugwort spaetzle. Remedywise, there’s also a small chicken in broth stuffed with sticky rice, ginseng, and jujube. While a serving won’t go very far toward ending the Cold War, it just might fend off a head cold.