Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Looking for bulgogi in all the wrong places

Looking for better bulgogi

A disclaimer: I know very little about Korean food.

But I do know that I fell in love when I first tried bulgogi at one of the Ko-Mart food stalls. The thin slices of beef hinted at BIG flavors -- the umami of soy, the sweetness of sugar, the heat of peppers, and the bite of raw garlic and green onion. I loved those flavors. I wanted more.

Yet every bulgogi dish I have tried since then seems to have less. Most bulgogi dishes have little or no heat and much less of the other flavoring ingredients.

When it comes to bulgogi, I am the Ugly American. I want more flavor. If authentic Korean bulgogi is about subtlety, I don't get it.

Korea Garden lunch

As an illustration, some friends and I recently tried the lunch specials at Korea Garden on Long Point. We ordered bulgogi, spicy pork bulgogi, and bulgalbi (a similar dish made with short ribs instead of sirloin).


The sides were fantastic. Tempura vegetables had a delicate, crispy bite. The kimchi was appropriately old, spicy, and funky. And I particularly liked a side of some unusual, sweet vegetables. I had the sense that Korea Garden would be even better at night, when you can cook at your table, and they bring more sides.

But of the three meat dishes, the only one with the BIG flavors was the spicy pork bulgogi. Its flavor was mostly spice, not the wonderfully strange sweetness I like in a bulgogi marinade. The other two dishes had no heat and only a little sweetness. I did not find that bulgogi flavor explosion that I have been seeking.

The bulgogi burger at home

On Monday, my wife brought home some buffalo burger paties. Surely she knew that I am not a fan of ordinary burgers. Surely she knew that I would turn them into something goofy.

As I opened the refrigerator, trying to decide what to do with the burger, I saw a jar of kimchi. The mission became clear.

First, I chopped up the spicy kimchi, and then added even more chili paste. I incorporated the spicy goodness into the meat. Then, as the meat grilled, I threw together a "bulgogi" sauce of soy, mirin, sugar, crushed garlic, and green onions.

As I first bit into the the kimchi burger covered in bulgogi sauce, I knew I had found it -- that explosion of Korean flavors that I had been missing,

Sure, my "bulgogi" burger is no more authentic Korean food than a pizza burger is authentic Italian food.

But sometimes authenticity doesn't matter when you need a lot of flavor.


Anonymous said...

BRILLIANT. I have got to try making a bulgogi burger now...

HoustonWok said...

Hey Buddy,
I would try the tofu restaurant on Bellaire right next door to the golden market restaurant. It is inside of the beltway, if you were coming down 59 you would head west on bellaire and it is right behind sinh sinh. Good Korean food there.

Jennifer said...

I was about to comment about the same Korean restaurant as the person before me, I believe. The one I am talking about is across the street (Bellaire) from Sinh Sinh, in the same lot as Cafe 101. It's all the way in the back of the lot and called Tofu Village. It's definitely my favorite Korean place here.

Anonymous said...

While Tofu Village (across from Sinh Sinh) is okay, your better flavors will be at Jangum (sp?...the one BEHIND Sinh Sinh).

You also mentioned the stalls inside of Ko-Mart. Well the King of Korean Grocery Stores is in town, and it's just a few exits away from Gessner. It's called H-Mart, located off Blalock (headed north) and Katy Freeway (I think the previous tenant that was there was a Flagship Randalls). More variety of dishes in H-Mart, and I think their bulgogi dish is better than Ko-Mart's. BTW, my personal fave is the Hwae-Dup-Bab, which is basically sashimi, mixed vegetables, and spicy Korean paste over steamed rice.

anonymouseater said...

@HoustonWok @Jennifer @Anonymous Thanks very much for recommending Jangum. I will have to try it.

@Anonymous I've been going to Super H mart since it opened. It may be the king of any kind of ethnic grocery stores in Houston. But I did not get much flavor out of the bulgogi in the food stands there. I much prefer some other dishes at the same food stand.

Anonymous said...

Nothing as tasty as a bulgogi burger, is simple the most delicious thing I've ever taste. said...

What namely you're saying is a terrible blunder.