Kang Ho Dong Baekjong Korean BBQ

Finally, a Korean BBQ restaurant in K-town serving bbq that lives up to the standards of what my father calls “LA BBQ”. (For those who are not in the know, many Koreans believe that LA BBQ is even better than what’s served in Seoul.) Kang Ho Dong Baekjong, a Seoul-based chain owned by a famous comedian and former pro wrestler, is on a different level than most of the old guard places on 32nd St, overrun with stern ajoomas who could care less that you need some water refills and tsk tsk you if they feel that you’re being cheap.

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the ban chan spread at kang ho dong baekjong, from top to bottom – steamed sweet potatoes, fish cakes, pickled radish, tofu

I would say that most of these Manhattan bbq spots get the job done, but not much more than that. Normally the marinade and seasonings are decent, but the quality of the meat is average. I’ve never had that melt in your mouth sensation that top notch, wonderfully marbled grass-fed beef might have, and I usually found the cooked meat to be tough, which I thought was a normal byproduct of the grilling process. But after my experience at Kang Ho Dong, now I know that Korean bbq can be tender and delicate.

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the thinly sliced brisket. melts in your mouth. amazing on its own without the sauce.
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the wonderfully marbled prime boneless short rib. excellent with a dab of salt and some dipping sauce
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cooking medium on the grill
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probably my favorite, the seasoned prime short rib

I also love how this place is so operationally efficient. As soon as your table is available, everything is ready to go. The ban chans are all there, the famous corn and egg appetizer is already cooking, the dipping sauces are set up, and you’ve got a bottle of water in a very Korean looking plastic canister. There are clear instructions on how to use the sauces in case you find all the little bowls overwhelming. The staff actually cooks the meat for you to a certain doneness, as compared to the other places, where the ajoomas might place the initial pieces on the grill for you, but you’re really on your own after that. And they are so responsive when you need more water or ban chan, which is a rarity at a lot of Korean restaurants.

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the daenjang mung bean stew, which comes at the end of the meal if you order one of the meat combo sets

The wait times at Kang Ho Dong Baekjong were pretty reasonable. We probably waited about 45 minutes for our table on a Sunday night, although I imagine it might be much longer on a Friday or Saturday. But I’m willing to suck it up, and in K-town, the wait goes by fast. This 24 hour town has so many distractions, soju, beer, karaoke, cafes, that before you know it, the 2 hours are up and you have a seat at the best Korean bbq place in town.

Kang Ho Dong Baekjong
1 E. 32nd St (between 5th and Madison Ave)
New York, NY 10016
(212) 966-9839

2 Days in Austin

I always imagined Austin to be this Southwestern hipster organic oasis that redeemed the state of Texas of everything else. For every gun-slinging, don’t-mess-with-Texas patriot or the big haired southern belle, there was always the colorful Austinite to keep things in check. And I was hoping that this would extend to the food as well. I spent a summer in Dallas in search of good Mexican and bbq and found neither, but I had a good feeling about Austin. When you’re the birthplace of Whole Foods and inspired the whole “Let’s keep it weird” campaign for other hipster cities like Portland, then there’s probably a good chance that the food in your city will be very interesting.

A friend’s wedding gave me a reason to come visit Austin, and I’m happy to report that the food in this city is indeed very good and lives up to expectations. I only really had 2 days to explore the restaurants in town, so I decided to narrow my scope to finding things I definitely couldn’t get in New York–good bbq and breakfast tacos.

My key take away from this trip is that the bbq in Austin is phenomenal and completely blows all the NYC heavy hitters like Mighty Quinn’s or Fette Sau out of the water. The same goes for breakfast tacos, I’m not sure why it’s so hard to find a place in New York that makes a decent breakfast taco or why it’s not more commonplace, because a solid breakfast taco is one of the most satisfying bites to be had. I also unexpectedly stumbled upon amazing baked goods and dessert shops, which was only upside to my initial plans. Austin clearly is no one trick pony, it is a legitimate food destination with a lot of appealing options for all occasions. If you’re ever in Austin for a weekend trip, the itinerary below, short but efficient, will guide you through the city’s culinary highlights.

Downtown Austin

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welcome to easy tiger
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fresh bread baked daily

Austin is a very fit city, so after an early morning run, treat yourself to a nice cup of coffee and a delicious pastry from Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden. It’s a little unusual to have a legit bakery and bar on the same premises, but I guess it’s one of those things that keeps Austin charmingly weird. The almond croissant I had here was THE BEST THING EVER. I could go on about the golden pastry flakes or the creamy core of almond paste, but this croissant was so good that it left me speechless. All I could do was eat. On a nice day, you can sit on the picnic tables near the water and play a friendly game of ping pong.

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time for some bbq
good bbq is worth waiting for...for 2 hours
good bbq is worth waiting for…for 2 hours

People in Austin like to line up for things. Especially for their bbq. Any place worth going to will most certainly have a 2 hour wait at the least. Franklin’s is the most famous of them all, but I was not willing to spend half a day waiting in line (yelp reviews indicate that you need to start waiting in line at 9 am just to eat at 12:30). We had heard great things about La Barbecue, which was a quick drive from our hotel in downtown Austin, and started qeueing up. Our 2 hour wait was marginally better, but I did not regret it at all. The line moves very slowly, so make sure you bring some good company and beer to make the time pass by quickly.

we finally got our food--pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, sausage and coleslaw
we finally got our food–pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, sausage and chipotle slaw
some soda pop to go with our bbq
some soda pop to go with our bbq

We went nuts with our order–pulled pork, pork ribs, brisket, sausage, chipotle slaw. There was probably around 14 pounds of meat on our tray, and if you can believe it, we wanted to order even more, specifically the beef ribs, but unfortunately they ran out.

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the brisket was the real star…unbelievably good
pork ribs and pulled pork
pork ribs and pulled pork were also strong

The best by far was the brisket. I’ve never had a brisket so marbled and tender and delicious. Usually brisket tends to be dry and needs a healthy dollop of bbq sauce to mask that, but at La Barbecue, the meat could more than stand on its own. The pork ribs were also some of my favorites. Never was the cliche “fall of the bone” any truer or clearer. The pulled pork was solid, some parts were fattier and tastier than others, so we essentially ate around the pieces that looked pale and dry. My least favorite was the sausage, which tasted like a dry blood sausage chorizo. That went largely uneaten.

At this point, you may be too full to eat dinner, or maybe you have a wedding to go to. But either way, walk off or dance off the meat sweats by going out on 6th Street, the place to be seen in downtown Austin. It’s a more wholesome version of Bourbon St in New Orleans, instead of trashy women flashing others for beads, you’ll be surrounded by a ton of UT Austin undergrads. Be prepared to swim in a sea or orange. The Driskill Hotel is probably the most grown up place to go on this street, and it’s also apparently the most haunted. In actuality, it feels like a stuffy Texan country club, but I get the sense that this is sort of a big deal here, so you might as well check it out.

migas breakfast tacos
migas breakfast tacos
taco plate--pulled pork and fish, with rice and beans
taco plate–pork shoulder and mojo fish, with rice and beans

After a long night of drinking, there’s nothing better than scarfing down some breakfast tacos the morning after. The breakfast taco is a beautiful thing, it’s such an efficient way of getting a square hearty meal in a single bite. We tried the breakfast migas tacos from Tacodeli, which came highly recommended, and they did not disappoint. I had never heard of migas until I came to Austin, but it’s essentially scrambled eggs mixed with cheese and tortilla chips, three things that go very well together. Throw in avocado for some healthy fats and fiber, and some rice and beans for texture and depth, and you almost have the food pyramid in the span of a tortilla. We also tried some lunch tacos, a pork shoulder taco and the mojo fish taco, both of which were also very good. When you make your tortillas in house and you use fresh ingredients, your tacos are going to come out tasting pretty darn good.

vegan coconut chai ice cream
vegan coconut chia chai ice cream on top of pecan pie

Before heading off to the airport, browse the quirky shops in South Congress (aka “SoCo”) and you may just pick up a weird antique at Uncommon Objects or a high end flannel shirt at Stag Provisions. There are more traditional boutiques like By George that sell Acne and Rag and Bone, but remember that you’re in Austin not Melrose, so set your expectations accordingly. If all that shopping gives you a sweet tooth, take a drive over to Lick Ice Creams, an artisanal ice cream shop with some of the most interesting flavors I have ever seen–lime and cilantro, roasted beets + fresh mint, goat cheese, thyme + honey?? I am a sucker for vegan ice cream, and the vegan coconut chai chia ice cream that I had was excellent.

If I had more time, I would have probably explored some more Tex-mex novelties like Frito pie or queso, and a coworker of mine highly recommended Trudy’s for the view and the margaritas. And maybe I would have ventured out to Salt Lick BBQ just to see how it compared to La Barbecue. I also wanted to visit the very first Whole Foods in the country, but there wasn’t enough time for all of this. I was pretty content, though, with the time I did make for bbq and breakfast tacos.

Easy Tiger
709 E 6th St
Austin, TX 78701
(512) 614-4972

La Barbecue
1906 E Cesar Chavez St
Austin, TX 78702
(512) 605-9696

The Driskill Hotel
604 Brazos St
Austin, TX 78701
(512) 439-1234

1500 Spyglass Dr
Austin, TX 78746
(512) 732-0303

Lick Honest Ice Creams
2032 S Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX 78704

(512) 363-5622

By George
524 North Lamar
Austin, TX 78703
(512) 472-5951

Stag Provisions
1423 S Congress Ave
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 373-7824

Uncommon Objects
1512 S Congress Ave
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 442-4000

Kansas City Travels: BBQ, Brunch and More

Do you ever get those last minute airfare deals from United and see an awesome RT flight to Cleveland for $183 and think to yourself, “wow, what a great deal, I am all over this!” and start packing your bags for an impromptu weekend trip to Ohio? Yeah, that never happens, because the reason why these flights are so cheap is because no one really goes to these cities by choice. For an unfortunate consulting gig or a wedding, yes, but on your own precious time, probably not.

But this Presidents’ Day weekend, we actually decided to take advantage of one of these United flight deals. To Kansas City of all places. Which may sound even worse than Cleveland to some. But hear me out on why Kansas City wasn’t a totally crazy idea.

No. 1: Kansas City was voted by Travel+Leisure as the #10 best American city for hipsters. There are a lot of cities in America – breaking the top 10 is pretty good. And it came out ahead of Seattle and Chicago, which are two cities I’ve been to with decent hipster scenes.

No. 2: Kansas City barbecue. Anthony Bourdain ranked Kansas City BBQ restaurant Oklahoma Joe’s as one of the 13 places in the world to eat before you die. Anthony Bourdain is judgmental and mean and has eaten everywhere, so it really means something when he calls this the “best BBQ in the world”.

No. 3: Kansas City weather forecast: 60 degrees. 60 degree weather doesn’t sound all that special. Why do 60 when you can do 90 in somewhere awesome like Miami or Cancun? But when you’ve been stuck in a city that’s been hit continuously with snowstorms and temperatures in the low teens, 60 degrees sounds fantastic.

So with these three compelling reasons, off to Kansas City I went, and now I’m here to report back. Did it live up to its ranking as the #10 hipster city in America? If hipster means the presence of quirky, offbeat people, then yes, there certainly is such a population in Kansas City, although the hipster community was very small. Kansas City is still overwhelmingly Midwestern, home to Hallmark, speedways and mother-and-son proms (this is actually a real thing). And the hipsters here aren’t like the plaid-shirted woodsmen of Portland or Brooklyn. They look a little more retro and vintage, more Lucille Ball and Rosie the Riveter than Leigh Lezark and Chloe Sevigny

lynda barry necessary shenanigans
midwestern hipster, courtesy of necessaryshenanigans.com
leigh lezark stylebistro
new york city hipsters, courtesy of stylebistro.com

In summary, Kansas City does have a hipster scene, but I wish it were bigger. You can probably hit all the highlights in about a day. Despite the limited options, I still had a lot of fun in the 2 short days we spent there. It was also about 30 degrees the whole weekend, so Reason #3 was a bit of a fail.

You know what did live up to the hype? The BBQ. The BBQ at Oklahoma Joe’s was the bomb. I’ve never had ribs this good. The meat was so tender that it fell off the bone, and it was marinaded in a delicious sauce that was sweet with a slight, tangy tinge of vinegar. I’ve had good ribs before, but these were a revelation.

oklahoma joe's - ribs and chicken dinner
the best bbq ribs in the world

If the ribs were a revelation, than The Z-Man Sandwich was the rapture. As Ruoxi puts it, this sandwich is a game-changer that will completely reset your expectations of what a good sandwich is. I crushed my serving in a few seconds because all I wanted to do was eat and eat some more rather than engaging in dinner small talk. If I had a super human metabolism, I would have eaten another whole sandwich by myself. This is hands down the best meat sandwich ever.

oklahoma joe's - the z-man sandwich
the z-man sandwich is the bomb
oklahoma joe's - carolina pork sandwich
the carolina pork sandwich

Not everything we ordered was a slam-dunk. The pulled pork sandwich was solid, but not spectacular, and the chicken was frankly a little rubbery. But the impressions made by the ribs and z-man sandwich were so strong that these other slight flaws didn’t really matter. As you might expect, getting your hands on BBQ this good doesn’t come easy. You’ll have to wait at least 40 minutes in a random gas station with first-come, first-serve cafeteria-style seating, but this is a very small and reasonable price to pay for the best BBQ of your life.

Maybe Travel+Leisure meant to rank Kansas City as the #10 foodie city in America, because I didn’t have a single bad or mediocre meal during my entire trip. Great brunch, cocktails, Mexican, coffee, etc. There are a lot of options for a good meal in Kansas City. If you’re in the mood for…

…a good brunch…check out Bluestem or Room 39. Bluestem, a James Beard award winning restaurant that specializes in progressive American cooking, is on par with popular NYC brunch spots like Cookshop or Northern Spy Food. You won’t be disappointed by their offerings of solid classics like eggs Benedict or steak and eggs. Interestingly enough, my favorite part of brunch was the parsnip soup, which was excellent. The dexterity with which the chef manipulated vegetables into a remarkably velvety, luxurious cream was very impressive.

bluestem omelette
omelette with a side of fresh greens and home fries
bluestem parsnip soup
the parsnip soup
bluestem skillet
the bluestem skillet with poached eggs, home fries, sausage, bacon and gravy

Bluestem and Room 39 are pretty evenly matched when its comes to executing brunch, but ultimately I would have to give the win to Room 39. What I appreciate about the cooking at Room 39 is its emphasis on reinterpreting familiar dishes in a way that enhances the flavors, rather than being done solely for the sake of culinary innovation. Any interesting ingredient is there for a reason, not to simply impress the diners.

Case in point is Room 39’s artichoke toast, a unique spin on the classic poached eggs concept, in which the sharp and tangy bite of the artichoke spread and the texture of the arugula brought some edge and depth to what could have been just an ordinary plate of eggs.

Room 39 - artichoke toast

The huevoso rancheros similarly left an impression with a refined take on a familiar dish. Most huevos rancheros are characterized by excess, in which eggs are drowning in cheese and sauce, and all the filling is bursting out of an overstuffed tortilla. The one at Room 39 is much more restrained – the cheese was mild and the cream and salsa were used moderately, which allowed you to actually taste and appreciate the individual components in the burrito. The eggs curiously enough almost tasted like a curried scramble, a testament to Room 39’s skill in letting nuanced flavors come through in a normally explosive and robust dish.

Room 39 - huevos rancheros
huevos rancheros

…if you need to eat someplace close to the two museums…I highly recommend Café Sebastienne at the Kemper Museum of Art. As you might expect, Cafe Sebastienne caters to an older and well-heeled palate, but that doesn’t mean the food is bland or boring. There’s actually interesting things other than soups and salads on the menu, like duck sausage cassoulet or mustard-curry shrimp. It’s the type of restaurant that you might visit for the food alone rather than the exhibits.

The grilled fish tacos I ordered were hearty and filling, and certainly had more flavor than the greasy, deep-fried mess I had at ABC Cocina. After a leisurely lunch, you should use that fuel to power through the exhibits at the bigger Nelson-Atkins Museum. The Nelson-Atkins Museum, by the way, is actually pretty impressive and reminds me of a small hybrid of the MOMA and the Met.

Café Sebastienne - fish tacos
roasted fish tacos with rancho gordo vallarta beans
Café Sebastienne - mustard curry shrimp
mustard-curry shrimp and scallion rice

…if you need kick-ass Mexican food…Kansas City has you covered! I’m talking about the authentic stuff, not the molly-coddled Dos Caminos tableside guac and margaritas experience. I had the most amazing taco at Bonito Michoacan, a modest restaurant that is run out of a Mexican grocery store. The chicharron taco is what I’m referring to specifically – this taco of simmered pork skins and green tomatillo sauce was another culinary game-changer that immediately stopped me in my tracks by how good it was. We also ordered a big gamey bowl of menudo, a soup made of beef tripe, which I didn’t like at all. I thought I was eating halitosis on a plate. I prefer menudo as a boy band, not as a food group.

bonito michoacan - barbacoa and carnitas
beef cheek taco on the left, carnitas taco on the right
bonito michoacan - tacos
from left to right: beef tongue, chicharron, carnitas, beef cheeks
bonito michoacan - menudo
menudo – no ricky martin, just lots of beef tripe soup

Your incredible meal will probably cost you less than $10, which should leave you with more than enough pocket change to buy some sweets at Bonito Michoacan’s bakery, which is across the parking log. This bakery is the most fascinating operation I’ve ever been to. Each display is filled with pastries that are enormous, and patrons around you are grabbing large trays and stockpiling them sky-high with as many monstrous pastries as humanly possible. Our purchase of one slice of cheesecake was extremely puzzling to everyone else who was adopting a buy-in-bulk strategy. I’m more of a quality-over-quantity girl, and the single cheesecake was delicious and did its job of satiating my sweet tooth. The texture on it was light and fluffy, more cake-like than cream-like in texture. And it wasn’t too sweet, which I love. American desserts could use some restraint in this area.

bonito michoacan bakery - baked goods v2
enticing desserts at bonito michoacan bakery

…for great coffee…head straight on over to Oddly Correct, Kansas City’s own artisanal coffee shop (can a city truly be hipster without one?). Oddly Correct is so serious about its coffee that it serves its special brews black. There’s no cream or sugar on the counter for communal use. I suppose you could ask for some, but the barista would probably give you a dirty look.

But there’s a good reason for that, and it’s because the black coffee tastes fantastic on its own. There was such clarity to my cup of Narino Colombia coffee – I’ve never had black coffee go down so smoothly, and I didn’t realize that it could have a natural sweetness to it. The Thika Kenya coffee tasted like tart boysenberry in espresso form, which again is a flavor that you can’t quite extract from most bitter cups. Oddly Correct keeps odd hours of 7-3 pm and is closed on Sundays, so plan on being a morning person while you’re there.

oddly correct - counter
this looks oddly familiar
oddly correct - black coffee
a serious cup of narino colombia coffee

For something less scene-y, you might prefer hanging out at Mud Pie, a vegan bakery and coffeehouse. This isn’t the place for black coffee; stick to the more traditional milk-based drinks like the “dirty south” chicory cafe au lait, order some vegan banana bread on the side, and you’ll be all set.

Mud Pie - coffee and vegan banana bread
vegan coffee and vegan banana bread

The least satisfactory meal that we had was also our most expensive. This was our last supper at Extra Virgin, a tapas restaurant run by nationally renowned chef Michael Smith. I was looking forward to the food here, especially since Curtis Stone called the duck tongue tacos at Extra Virgin “the best thing I ever ate.” When I tried the taco, I was a bit disappointed by how little of the duck I could actually taste. I tasted a whole lot of cornmeal and red onions, but not much duck.

extra virgin - duck tongue tacos
extra virgin’s famous duck tongue tacos

We also ordered the chorizo and fig filled chicken thighs, the braised rabbit and potato gnocchi and the spanish meatballs. I thought the braised rabbit was really well cooked and seasoned, but the underlying gnocchi was surprisingly tough. The chicken thighs flips the prosciutto-wrapped figs tradition on its head by wrapping a chicken of all things around a fig, which I thought was very clever, but ultimately the flavors were a bit too muddied and heavy. The meatballs were nice and plump, and the sauce was thick and hearty, but the meatballs themselves were a little tough. I would probably stick to restaurants that specialize in simpler, classic food rather than those that are trying a bit too hard to be fancy.

extra virgin - chorizo and fig filled chicken thighs
chorizo and fig filled chicken thighs
extra virgin - spanish meatballs
spanish meatballs
extra virgin - braised rabbit and potato gnocchi
braised rabbit and potato gnocchi

I had a fantastic time in Kansas City. It was quirky, kitschy and delicious, which makes for a perfect weekend trip. The city felt a little small at times, and it certainly wasn’t anywhere near 60 degrees on our trip, but that gave us more opportunities to spend time indoors eating, and luckily those times were well spent. Having a sense of adventure and an open mind has its payoffs – maybe that ticket to Cleveland isn’t such a bad idea after all…

Japanese Korean BBQ at Takashi

What I’m about to say is a little blasphemous, but the best Korean bbq that I’ve had in the city is at Takashi, a Japanese restaurant that combines “the bold, heartiness of Korean flavors with the finesse of Japanese cuisine.” Koreans and Japanese have had a rocky past, so the fact that a treasured regional dish is being reinvented in a Japanese manner is sure to ruffle some feathers of a proud and nationalistic group. But I have to give credit where it’s due–I was extremely impressed by the flavors of Takashi’s subtle marinade and the melt-in-your mouth qualities of the high-grade meat.

The whole bbq experience at Takashi is very Japanese. Gone are all the banchan appetizers that take up the whole table. Instead, there are three small bowls of pickled vegetables, seasoned beansprouts and cabbage salad. The Japanese tradition of restraint is clearly being exercised here. The portions of meat provided for grilling are smaller than what you’d receive at a Korean restaurant. In one bbq order, there’s usually 4-8 pieces of meat total. Each table has a huge vent that traps the smoke and smells of the grill before it stinks up your clothes, which is definitely a big plus because the smell alone is enough to rule out Korean bbq for me. The Japanese really have such an eye for detail.

Takashi sources its premium Japanese and American Angus meat from local farms and esteemed distributors like Pat Lafrieda. I think the quality of these premium meats goes a long way, because I could not find fault with any single meat dish that we tried. It was a matter of splitting hairs to determine which one was my favorite. Even the cow tongue or shio-tan was a pleasant surprise. I am not one of those adventurous eaters who think eating offal is totally awesome. I explicitly told everyone in my dinner party that I was opposed to tongue, and when I actually felt the rubbery, squishy piece in my mouth, the phrase “cat got your tongue?” became much too real. But it really was pretty good, although the texture still leaves much to be desired. If you are into offal, Takashi has you covered. Stomach, large intestine, heart, sweetbreads, liver, aorta–no part of the cow goes to waste.

takashi - tongue
cat got your tongue?

My favorite non-grilled meat dish of the night was the yooke, or the beef tartare. Imagine eating the best bulgogi you’ve ever had, only in raw form. It sounds odd, but that’s the best way of describing it. The famed niku-uni, which consisted of fresh sea urchin and chuck flap wrapped in seaweed, was memorable, but I personally thought the uni and the meat were competing for my attention. Uni in my opinion goes best with something more neutral like white rice or pasta, in which its unique, brine-y flavors can really come through.

takashi - niku-uni
takashi - yooke beef tartare
beef tartare

My favorite grilled meat was the kalbi–the slightly sweet marinade was just perfect, and the thick cut was extremely satisfying. The harami skirt steak was also excellent, tender and chewy in just the right amounts. I wasn’t expecting much from the cheeks or tsurami, but they were surprisingly flavorful. I suppose plump and soft parts of the body usually yield great cuts of meat.

takashi - cheeks
takashi - kalbi
takashi - skirt steak
skirt steak

Even though Takashi has the best Korean bbq, the experience you get here is pretty different from the one you get in Ktown. The places in Ktown have all the additional stews, pajeons and hearty dishes that are perfect for fueling your raucous night of clubbing or karaoke. A dinner at Takashi is much more subdued and intimate, and meat is the main focus. I think there’s room for both to harmoniously coexist on the Korean bbq spectrum since they are selling experiences that are different enough. But more importantly, Takashi is another West Village joint that passes my crosstown test!

456 Hudson St.
New York, NY 10011
(212) 414-2929