My mom and I try to have lunch together as regularly as we can. Even when I was still living at home in the Philippines, we would have regular “Wednesday club” dates and movie nights. We always found reasons to hang out together, which would explain why I’m such a mama’s girl.
Last week, our lunch date took us to Woo Jung, a Korean restaurant in Palisades Park, New Jersey. I happened to mention to my mom that my husband Tom had never been to a Korean restaurant before, and while galbi jjim (Korean braised short ribs) happens to be one of my earliest specialties, my version is probably not truly authentic. So, rather than schedule our usual sushi lunch, she decided we’d introduce my husband to Korean cuisine instead.
My love for Korean food goes back many years, back to when my father was still an officer in the Philippine military. His final assignment before retiring was the Military/Defense Attaché post in Seoul, South Korea, and his four-year-long stint there meant that our family made frequent trips with prolonged stays in South Korea. I have fond memories of that country and the friends we made while we were there. It amazed me that I was able to experience a culture so different from my own in a place that was, relatively speaking, so geographically close to home.
And the food. Oh, the food was just as diverse. And that was just what we wanted Tom to experience for himself.
The first thing you have to remember when eating at a Korean restaurant is that, no matter how famished you are, don’t try to order everything in the menu that strikes your fancy. Why? Well, you know how some restaurants bring a bowl of chips or fried noodles to your table for you to snack on while waiting for your order to arrive? Or maybe give you a few rolls and some butter? Or some breadsticks? In a Korean restaurant, they give you this:
Almost as soon as you give them your order, all these little dishes start arriving at your table at the same time. It’s as if someone with a giant tray waits by the kitchen door, and as soon as you confirm, “Yes, that’ll be all,” they come sprinting, ready to unload all these goodies. (I counted at least twelve different kinds.) You get a basket of crisp lettuce leaves instead of chips, and an assortment of different appetizers.
Mind you, you don’t have to order anything special to get all this. There were four of us, and we ordered four lunch specials (which ranged in price from $8.95 to $12.95). There was even a small clay pot of savory egg custard that you don’t see in the photo. They brought kimchi, different salads and pickled vegetables, sweet and spicy fish, slivers of scallions with horseradish …
That was our table, with barely enough room for our yet-to-arrive orders. The only dish here that we actually ordered was the steamed dumplings.
My husband wanted noodles, so we ordered japchae for him. Japchae is made of stir fried glass noodles (made from potato starch) with sesame oil, julienned vegetables, and beef. My husband declared it quite possibly the best noodles he’s ever had. (They were so good, we ordered a second helping.)
My mom had the grilled mackerel, which was very flavorful. We had it along with some rice and different pickled vegetables, and occasionally made little lettuce wraps of them.
As for me, I of course had to try their galbi jjim. It was a bit sweeter than I usually make it, but still absolutely delicious. The meat was very tender, and easily fell of the bone. The broth had whole chestnuts and a few plums hiding in it, and it was perfect with a bowl of jasmine rice.
Needless to say, Tom’s introduction to Korean cuisine was a resounding success, and we can’t wait to go back. Tom was impressed at how healthy everything was. They feed you so well during the meal that you don’t even think to ask for the dessert menu. Which is a good thing, because they don’t have one. And you know something? Despite the persistent sweet tooth that runs in our family, we never even missed dessert.
Tom is looking forward to having those noodles again, and I don’t blame him. They were really, really good. Me? It’s only been a few days since that meal, but I’m already dreaming of having this again.
If you find yourself in the vicinity of Palisades Park in New Jersey, try to fit Woo Jung into your schedule. (They’re even open as early as 6am for breakfast.) And if you spot four people sitting at a table for six with enough food for eight people, walk on over and say hello to us.