32nd Street between 5th and Broadway goes by a different name; Korea Way. It’s the only Koreatown in the States and this little strip of road compacts an entire country into every crevice. Many teenagers and twenty-somethings might know this area for its BYOB Karaoke rooms.
We were led past tables with grills sizzling, as waitresses and patrons cooked arrays of meats and vegetables. Young Korean men maneuvered past us, hot wood chips in hand. The scene could only be described as artful, organized chaos.
Our table was towards the back, near the entrance to the closed off kitchen area. Immediately, I smiled at the place setting in front of us; chopsticks and a spoon. My dad and I are the anti-fork ethnic eaters, and always judge the authenticity of a place by their utensils. So far, New Wangjo was passing every test with flying colors.
We glanced over the menu knowing that we wanted some variety of meat to grill. The kimchi pancake also stood out to my dad as an appetizer, and despite the warning little chile next to the name, I agreed to the dish. We then also opted for meat combo #1, which consisted of Gam Bi (Marinated Short Ribs), Ox Tongue, Pork Belly and Vegetables. The waitress then adjusted the cover to the grill, signifying our intent to BBQ.
Within moments of placing out order, an array of little, white ramekins appeared before us, containing a wide variety of vegetables.
We each had scallions marinated in a sesame-type sauce, which I devoured with ease. In addition, kimchi cabbage, marinated mushrooms, broccolini, raw garlic/jalapeño, bean paste and other unrecognizable sauces and vegetables were sampled. No explanation was given when these dishes arrived. It’s not that kind of a place. Word to the wise, if you have an allergy, this isn’t the place for you.
As we waited for the rest of the dishes to arrive, my dad began to tell stories of his two months living in Korea while in the Marines. I love hearing his stories, which seem endless and fascinating of a different time during his youthful exploration. My dad arranged trips for all of the younger soldiers to stay at a gorgeous hotel in Seoul, followed by a trip to the North Korean border. It’s pretty amazing. He asked the waitress, who hardly spoke any English, where she was from. As it turns out my dad had spent a few days in her hometown, she was very impressed. As was I.
Shortly after, more unusual dishes were placed on the table, including some kind of a cooked egg dish. It reminded me of a poorly made souffle, sinking with each passing moment. A tofu soup also came in this mixture of dishes, which was full of flavor and a little kick of heat.
All at once, our platter of raw meat and the kimchi pancake arrived. I guess there’s no such thing as appetizers arriving before the main course. One waiter opened up our grill, inserting two trays of hot coals/wood chips, before putting the grate on top. While the grill began to heat up, my dad and I tried the kimchi pancake.
Light and crisp, this reminded me of an elevated version of a scallion pancake. Despite the menu warning, the spice was really subtle. The cabbage inside added a nice added crunch and bite of flavor. It was a little hard to eat the big slices without making a mess, but I didn’t mind. This was a great starter.
As we finished our slice of pancake (we only finished half), we turned to the platter of raw meat sitting on the table, just waiting to be grilled.
The waitress started to add pieces of raw meat onto the grill. She started with ten large piece of fatty pork belly and Ox tongue.
I tried the Ox Tongue first, which was awesome. Tongue is one of my favorite cuts of meat, with a unique texture and light, subtle flavor. These pieces were super crisp and easy to devour. Next, I ate some of the pork belly, removing the fatty part of each piece. It’s was a great cut of pork, but not my favorite meat, generally speaking.
Next we moved onto the marinated short ribs, which they waitress started to place on top of pieces of lettuce, creating a form of a lettuce wrap. My dad and I especially loved adding the bean paste to the meat, adding an almost peanut-like element of flavor you would associate with Thai cuisine.
In between pieces of rich meat, I would opt for a grilled mushroom, squash, onion or broccoli, trying to bring some fresh element to the full on meat action.
At the end of the fun meal, were totally full. The waitress brought a tray of sliced honeydew to end the heavy meal on a sweet note, which was definitely needed.
Overall, this is such a fun meal to do with friends. Korean BBQ allows you the opportunity to help cook your own food, which always makes dining more fun. Plus, the prices are totally reasonable and you also end up with significantly more food then anticipated. The next time you want some authentic Korean food, or just having a craving for the tough-guy act of grilling meat, you know what street to walk down in NYC. Now you know which doorway to enter.
New Wonjo – 23 East 32nd Street – New York, NY
Location: Midtown East/Koreantown, NY
Perfect For: Casual Meal, Impressing Foodies, Authentic Dining
Reservations: Not Accepted
Favorite Dishes: Kimchi Pancake, Korean BBQ (Ox Tongue, Gam Bi)