Corn dogs are best avoided if you can’t help wondering when the actual hot dog last saw the light of day before it was encrypted in a wall of starchy, mysteriously cylindrical corn breading. Last month? Or several millennia ago?

The Dog and Kimchi Pancake Corndog, Asiadog

So it was with some trepidation that I ordered the kimchi pancake corndog ($6) at the new eight-seat restaurant and takeout joint Asiadog on Kenmare street. Theirs was no machine-made corn dog, however, but a reassuringly asymmetrical dog, pictured right, much like an actual kimchi pancake would look when recently wrapped around a beef hot dog and deep fried until golden brown. The results were astoundingly delicious, drizzled with a sweet and spicy homemade sauce a lot like the addictive sauce in a good bulgogi.  (more…)

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Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Take Two

It was pouring. Pouring the horizontally slanting kind of rain, seemingly specific to urban areas, that renders umbrellas useless. Hands Honson and I stood in the glassed in vestibule of a nearby restaurant, arguing about where to eat.

“They don’t have soup.” He stared at the menu. “I thought you said they had soup.”

Earlier, he had made one of the most frustrating requests a food writer can hear, the demand for “something light.” What does this mean? Something light Thai? Something light Korean? Next someone will be asking me to recommend an entirely carb-free restaurant. I say: just order appropriately.

But Hands was having none of it. There was no soup. There was a wait of 15 minutes for a seat. (A mere 15 minutes!) What about sushi? The day after a four day Christmas weekend? You’ve got to be kidding me. Never mind that this menu listed a wide selection of raw fish. For some reason, to Hands, that didn’t count as “sushi.”

A guy who was leaving picked up on the argument. “Get the hanger steak.”

“Listen,” I said to Hands. “This place just got named the best new restaurant in 2007 in today’s Times. If we don’t eat here tonight, right away, we’re never going to be able to eat here again.”

Hands relented, crankily. Crank, crank, crank, until the first course at Momofuku Ssäm Bar landed. And then, my very own Christmas miracle: as soon as the food touched his lips, he shut up. There was absolutely nothing left to complain about.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar was one of the first restaurants reviewed on this site, back when they were just a burrito joint. Like many others around the city, I was willing to follow those steamed pork buns around the city with religious zeal. On this night, the place was full and buzzing, the food was excellent, and the music was hopping. It was enough to make even a cynic burned out from the holidays suddenly love New York.

The pork buns are still here, though they are joined by a host of new options. We started with the cured hamachi with edamame, horseradish, and pea leaves. Even on the day after Christmas, Momofuku’s fish was silky, with a clean, pure taste that wasn’t overwhelmed by the relatively mild horseradish spread. All the flavors sparkled, even something as tiny as a pea leaf.

The “bread & butter” was Hands’ spartan choice of an appetizer, though what arrived on the table was decadent.

“I think this is the best bread and butter I’ve ever had in my life.”

Hands agreed. The mini (sourdough?) baguette arrived piping hot – perhaps even freshly baked if Momofuku parbakes their bread. Savory goat’s butter was rich and tangy, and the sea salt butter contained a superior sea salt like the “Flower of the Ocean” brand that’s harvested from northwestern France.

Shockingly, the steamed pork buns have gotten even better with time. I didn’t think this was possible. Momofuku’s pork belly, now widely imitated, is still the torch bearer for this cut of meat – nowhere else have I encountered it prepared so perfectly. And the hoisin sauce must still be made with crack because of the sudden bliss it induces. Or at least star anise – there’s a complicated dance of spices going on in the mix.

Throwing caution to the wind, I ordered raw diver sea scallops from Maine. The chef working behind the bar sliced them thin, then garnished the scallops with tiny, crackly bits of deep fried seaweed sprinkled atop like maritime lardons. Bordering them was an inventive side of pickled cherries, which could open up a new chapter in the salty-sweet trend – sweet and sour.

As advised, we got the hanger steak ssäm, which was basically bulgogi taken up several notches in deliciousness. The choice of hanger steak for this dish seemed perfectly in keeping with Momofuku’s style – nothing too fancy, just keeping it real. But when all of the parts are expertly chosen and prepared, the whole adds up to something amazing.

We didn’t order the crispy pig’s head torchon that has gotten so much press, but for the record, here’s what it is. They take a pig’s head and braise it with vegetables and herbs, scoop up the pig head guts that float to the surface, make them into a sausage, cook it and slice it. Yummers. I chalked that one up to “next time.”

Though David Chang has gotten the lion’s share of praise from the press, the culinary invention at Momofuku seems to be very much a group effort. An unnamed pastry chef contributed a fantastic “peanut butter and jelly” dessert that was layers of homemade grape jelly, a gourmet nutter-butter like crispy wafer, and saltine ice cream. And as one person quipped when I naively asked if Chang was in the kitchen now, “He’s not f-ing cooking!”

Hilarious, but true. In our celebrity-chef-worshiping culture, you’ve gotta remember the little guys. They might grow up to be the next David Chang.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 Second Avenue
at 13th Street

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Kuku Canteen

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I have a relationship with the restaurant featured in this review: The folks at Wawa Canteen prepare delicious food, and I eat it. Several times a week.

When a tiny Korean restaurant in central Greenwich Village closed a couple years back, neighbors were dismayed, expecting the usual NYU-geared smoothie/creperie/coffee shop to open in its place. But what arrived was Korean Restaurant 2.0, with a sleek design comprised of wood counters flanked by modern chairs, tiled walls and floors, and displays of rice and Sapporo lining the back wall. It’s now owned by Philip Rodrigue, who used to own the Cooler in the MPD. (He brought his excellent music collection with him.) What a relief to have an actual restaurant in this spot, and an approachable one, too. The ergonomic layout allows for quick service, because, as Rodrigue puts it, “You ought to be able to eat some decent food for $10 and be in and out in a half hour.”

Eureka. It’s the concept of a diner applied to ethnic food, in this case, Korean cuisine, which is underrepresented in New York compared to the plethora of Chinese, Japanese, and pan-Asian spots. Though Rodrigue says he was going for “generic eating,” the results are anything but. Consulting chef Donna Lee put a California spin on Korean food with home-cooking style dishes like surprisingly light kimchi fried rice.

My first feeling upon biting into the kimchi fried rice with chicken was one of deep regret. Here I’d been eating at Wawa Canteen for nearly two years, and I’d never tried the best dish on the menu until now, in my quest to cover as many items as possible. The kimchi is so good – spicy, sweet, crunchy, tangy – and the sticky, fluffy rice has chili flecked throughout. Though this is traditional home cooking, the type you won’t find in Koreatown restaurant-style food, the presentation is elegant, with fine strips of nori on top. It’s exciting comfort food, and it can be habit-forming.

Kimchi is an insanely popular ingredient here: during the NYU school year, Wawa goes through four 15-gallon vats of it in a week. Like a new pickle, Wawa’s kimchi retains that vegetable crunch that enlivens so many of the dishes here. The soft, barely sweet dough of the kimchi pajun is interlaced with strips of this crispy goodness, all of which goes beautifully with the slightly vinegary soy sauce.

Of course, what kimchi also does is heat things up. Only the intrepid should opt for the kimchi stew, an incredibly spicy, sour concoction that blows away neighboring faux-Asian places whose food has too much sugar and not enough heat. A red slick of chili oil on the soft tofu stew tells you this is one seafood dish that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Thankfully, the white rice served alongside helps put out the flames.

If you can’t take the heat, never fear. Several dishes offer up healthy, vegetable-centric Korean food in a milder format. The best of the non-spicy bunch is the curry rice with chicken and vegetables. (Just ask for both chix and vegetables.) The rich sauce exudes a slow burn that complements the stewed potatoes, carrots, chicken, and beans. Also tasty are the pork dumplings, soft little dollops whose sweetness is nicely cut by a vinegary black sauce. Ramen hits somewhere in between hot and mild; a hint of spice turns up the noodles a notch, and the pork in the pork ramen is plump and juicy.

If you really want to go healthy, go for the soy ginger glazed chicken or the soy and ginger glazed chicken, definitely two of the lighter dishes on the menu. Both of these are barely dressed. The carb-avoidant could even eat just the protein and the very fresh sautéed bok choy and leave the rice behind. There are also plenty of vegetarian options on the menu.

Salads have true substance, like the cold buckwheat noodle salad topped with mixed greens and grilled soy-marinated steak, sliced razor-thin by a Korean purveyor. The dressings here – soy, citrus ginger, sesame – are delicious, and really make the ingredients pop.

But the ultimate Korean dish is a mixture of spicy and mild, hot and cool, animal and vegetable: bibimbop. Wawa’s is a bonanza of hot soy-marinated beef, cold steamed spinach, bok choy, jullienned carrots, broccoli, bean sprouts, and rice, with a spicy red barbecue sauce served alongside. All the four food groups are well represented, except one. This is my one complaint about Wawa, and the first question I ever asked there: What about the egg?

I’ll have to ask about it again next week.

Wawa Canteen
289 Mercer Street, between Waverly Place and 8th Street
New York, New York

* Open Mon – Fri. Check website for hours.

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Momofuku Ssäm Bar

Intriguing news hit the downtown culinary scene recently: David Chang of the revered Korean fushion place Momofuku Noodle Bar, a favorite of off-duty chefs and off-expense-account restaurant reviewers, was opening a new restaurant. The offshoot, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, would specialize in…burritos?

Heresy! How dare this uppity chef tinker with our favorite food? Determined to investigate, I trekked over there one rainy afternoon.

Though the concept sounds kitschy, Momofuku Ssäm Bar is not. Spare and wood paneled, with a bright, open kitchen, the burrito bar is designed much like Momofuku Noodle Bar, though thankfully, this space is wider and roomier. I place an order for the Berkshire pork ssäm (a.k.a. burrito) at the counter. (Unlike the noodle joint, there is no table service here.) One chef pulls a flour tortilla out of a steamer and hands it to two other chefs for what proves to be a major burrito-making operation. I hope the ssäm will rival the Berkshire pork buns at Momofuku Noodle Bar, also on the menu here, which are so good they inspired a friend of mine to call me and repeat: “Pork buns… Pork buns…” until I agreed to accompany her there again.

The chefs pile the tortilla with a mountain of pork, black beans, rice, cabbage slaw, and a dollop of chili sauce, then somehow manage to wrap this into a burrito. They hand it to me – a relatively diminutive person, especially when seen in the same frame as a giant burrito – with an apprehensive look.

The space is welcoming, but there is something about it that makes me feel slightly…out of place. Then I realize: I am one of very few women in the room. I do a headcount. Twelve out of sixteen lunch patrons are men, most of them good-looking, seemingly straight, and dressed in carelessly chic clothing. But of course. There is indie rock playing on the stereo, a beat-up vintage John McEnroe poster by the door, and for Christ’s sake, this is a burrito joint! I feel as if I’ve somehow gotten into the guys’ clubhouse. If only more New York women were aware of this phenomenon, perhaps they would embrace carbs as well.

The ssäm itself is great: a delectable combination of ropy Cuban-esque pork, smoky beans, rice, and crunchy vinegary cabbage slaw, all made extremely spicy by the Korean chili sauce. The flavors are similar to the ones at Momofuku Noodle Bar, but in burrito form.

So why did David Chang do it? Perhaps because he is a disciple of master spinner-offer Tom Colicchio of Craft. Perhaps because NYU is building more high-rise dorms in the area every day, much to the chagrin of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Momofuku Ssam Bar already has late night hours and delivery service on the way, as an email sign-up sheet by the door informs us. Whatever side you’re on in the epic NYU/GV real estate battle, there is a definite side benefit to NYU’s expansion: This is the ultimate college food, dude.

I roll out of there feeling as if I’ve turned into an extra-large burrito. When my college-age metabolism was still roaring at relatively high speed, albeit in another, smaller town, all we had in late night offerings was a cheesesteak joint, pizza shops, and Chinese takeout so bad we called it “Hein Garden.” Kids these days? They get to binge on Momofuku’s $9 gourmet.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 Second Avenue
at 13th Street

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