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Kimchi & Big Apple

2008/02/28 Source

Koreatown in New York Never Sleeps

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

NEW YORK ― Luminous skyscrapers, the hustle and bustle of yellow cabs, poker-faced pedestrians and a dizzying mosaic of different cultures: it's New York City.

In a way, the Big Apple continues to symbolize the great American melting pot. For a "genuine" New York experience, a visit to Little Italy or Chinatown ― or the newly emerging hotspot Koreatown ― is essential.

Seoul in New York: West 32nd Street

On West 32nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway lies a small block lined with Korean-style stationary stores (Morning Glory), supermarket (Han Ah Reum) and cafes galore. West 32nd Street, with its anarchic array of neon signs that read "BBQ" and "Open 24 Hours", takes you back to Korea.

Flushing, Queens may be the ultimate Korean district in New York (and on the east coast), but it has that distinct "Korean American" quality that sets it apart from mainland Korea. Like Los Angeles Koreatown, Flushing represents a different facet of the Korean Diaspora.

West 32nd, on the other hand, is like a miniature version of Seoul packed into one slim street block. But this is interesting, considering that it is completely exposed to the rest of New York.

There's now even a film, appropriately titled "West 32nd" (2007) devoted to the place. It stars popular actors John Cho and Jung Joon-ho, and delves deep into the Korean crime mob that exists beneath all the bulgogi (marinated beef) restaurants and noraebang (singing room). You can probably rent the DVD at a Blockbuster near you.

"(West 32nd) is the farthest you can get from Korea, so people are almost in this little island, whereas in L.A., there are people who can live there without knowing any English. In New York, you can't do that ― the Latinos are here, the Jews are right there and the Chinese are right behind you", Michael Kang, director of "West 32nd" previously told The Korea Times.

"As extravagant real-estate costs and gentrification do away with most of Manhattan's ethnic neighborhoods outside Chinatown, the valuable commercial strip of West 32nd Street… remains firmly, surprisingly, overwhelmingly Korean", reads a recent New York Times article on New York Koreatown.

Dubbed "Korea Way", this is where New Yorkers and visitors can go for a thoroughly Korean experience within Manhattan. The biggest reason New Yorkers and visitors find themselves on West 32nd Street is for the homey soups and kimchi.

There is the famous Gam Mee Ok (43 West 32nd Street; Call 212-695-4113), which boasts a long history of serving seolleongtang, or oxtail-and-bone-marrow soup. It's hearty and tasty ― and real, as good as any reputable seolleongtang place in Korea.

Kunjip is also popular as a standard family restaurant. The seollongtang here isn't as rich and savory as that of Gam Mee Ok but Kunjip serves some mean bulgogi and doejang jjigae (bean curd stew). The best part of the place is that it's open 24 hours ― it's like a stepping into sleepless Seoul in the heart of New York. While the Big Apple falls into deep slumber, the place is packed 'round the clock.

Around four in the morning it particularly caters to a hungry young clientele that stops by after a night of partying. There are as many non-Asians that enjoy the "haejang" or sobering-up meal.

Partying Between Seoul and New York

There is also a Korean nightclub in town. The Circle, one of the trendiest nightclubs in Seoul, takes itself to New York. Located on 135 West 41st Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway, the Circle NYC opened Feb. 15, replacing a well-known but mediocre club called Arena.

There are two large bars and an open dancing space, two elevated areas for private tables and a couple of pole dancers. It's like any other New York club, so it might be somewhat disappointing for those looking for something classy like the Circle in Seoul, with its rotating circular stage.

But what does set it apart is the performance by a beautiful trapeze artist, though it goes rather unnoticed by the busy club goers. What it seems good for, however, is that it offers a more intimate and "safe" clubbing environment, "where you can meet your future husband" joked one young woman.

The clientele is mostly Korean/Korean-Americans, both locals and visitors, and a good number of non-Koreans. It's like any other Asian clubs around the Big Apple, except you can expect every Asian face to be Korean. The dance music was American pop and hip hop, spiced up with timeless Korean club mixes like music by Psy and JYP (Park Jin-young). And there was of course much advertising for the upcoming JYP Tour.

It's open Thursday-Saturday 10 p.m.-4:30 a.m (We visited on a Friday night and the place was packed until closing time). Call 212-575-4779 or email info@thecirclenyc.com to reserve a table. Entrance fee is $20 per person, but like most hot spots, "chic attire required to enter ― management reserves the right to be selective".

Touch of Korean Aesthetics

Dubbed "one of the worst-advertised museums of all time" by the New York Times, the Lee Young Hee Museum of Korean Culture (2 West 32nd Street, Suite 301; Call 212-560-0722) can be found on the third floor of an office building on West 32nd. Lee is probably Korea's most famous hanbok or Korean traditional costume designer, having dressed up former-President Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush for the 2005 APEC summit in Korea. It showcases various ceremonial hanbok and antique accessories. Visit www.lyhkm.org.

Around New York, you can find Korean art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Arts of Korea wing) and Brooklyn Museum (Asian Art collection).

For a well-rounded introduction to Korean arts, culture and society, visit Korea Society (950 Third Avenue 8th Floor; Call 212-759-7525). Among other activities, it holds art exhibitions. Following a very unique exhibition on kkoktu or Korean funeral figures, currently ongoing is "Toy Stories: Souvenirs from Korean Childhood". It's a colorful display of retro toys from the 1970s and 80s, and the perfect accompaniment, a classic robot animation film "Robot Taekwon V", will be screened March 18. The exhibition runs through April 18. For more information visit www.koreasociety.org.

There are also Korean art galleries around town, including KooNewYork (126 East 64th Street, 2nd Floor; Call 646-918-7030) and the Kang Collection (9 East 82nd Street; Call 212-734-1490). Gana Art Gallery, a major domestic exhibitor, will open its New York branch March 19 (210 11th Avenue). The opening collection features artist Bae Byung-ho. Information, such as the phone number of the gallery, is yet to be announced.

More Korean Cuisine

Momofuku Ssam Bar for the svelte. David Chang of the fashionable Korean fusion place Momofuku Noodle Bar opened a new restaurant devoted to ssam or wraps (207 Second Avenue at 13th Street; Call 212-254-3500). The ssam here is not the lettuce wrap you eat at bulgogi restaurants. Rather, it serves fresh burritos ― "tortilla" or flour wrapped pork, black beans, rice and cabbage slaw. Where's the Korean part? It's in the magically spicy sauce ― somewhat like gochujang or red pepper paste but with a special tang. It's sort of like bibimbop (vegetable mixed rice) meets the Mexican burrito.

Ramyeon to go. Tucked away on 56th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues is a small, very obscure Korean take-out place. It lacks a proper restaurant sign and name, but is not to be underestimated. (Just walk up and down the small block and you'll manage to find it).

Serving Korean snacks and meals, like ramyeon (instant noodles), it's extremely popular among business people in the midtown finance district. Terry Lee, 29, an investment banker, found out about it when he noticed his New Zealander and Australian co-workers eating kimchi jjigae (stew) in the office.

The regular instant noodles you buy at the supermarket are spiced up with slices of meat and other flavorful ingredients. Take out only.

Korean food in transition. At terminal 1 of John F. Kennedy International Airport, one of the most popular snack bars in the food court is "Soup & Kimbob" or "Jikji" in Korean. The kimchi kongnamul gukbob or kimchi and bean sprout soup with rice tasted surprisingly good and hearty. There is also ramyeon, kimbob and udong, all under $9.

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