Where to Find Korean Food in the Hudson Valley
Currently the “it” cuisine
Photographs by Roy Gumpel
Korean food is currently the “it” cuisine. From Manhattan to Seattle, new restaurants are opening all the time, and food trucks patrol the streets serving up classic Korean barbecue (bulgogi): super-tender thinly sliced beef (sometimes pork or chicken) that’s been treated to distinctively tangy marinades flavored with Asian pear juice, garlic, soy sauce, rice wine, hot pepper, and other trade secrets. It lends itself to many different presentations, from being wrapped in a lettuce leaf with rice to filling up a taco shell — spawning fusion fare like Ko-Mexican and even Ko-Hawaiian.
When you dine in a Korean restaurant, expect to be treated to a panoply of side dishes (banchan) that accompany steam-cooked short-grain rice and give meals crunch and color. The most famous side dish of all is kimchi, a pickled and fermented vegetable concoction redolent of chilies, garlic, ginger, and perhaps fish sauce or brine. You’ll find it in everything, from soup to dumplings, and served at every meal. The most common variety is napa (aka Chinese or Korean) cabbage — a long white cabbage as opposed to the familiar round kind.
“Korean food has some strong flavors,” says Joe McPherson, an American ex-pat who lives in Seoul, where he conducts food tours and blogs on the Web site zenkimchi.com. “Combined with the spice factor, I think that the American palate had to develop for it.”
McPherson feels that Korean food in this country is a true reflection of its roots. “A lot of Korean restaurants in America are notoriously insular, primarily catering to other Koreans, but that’s also an asset. The food in those places hasn’t bent itself into awkward yoga positions to accommodate American tastes. Korean restaurants in America taste very close to their counterparts in Korea.”
Dramatic presentation: Popular dishes from Seoul Kitchen in Beacon include bibimbap (above left) and chapchae (above right).
One such authentic spot is the almost three-year-old Seoul Kitchen in Beacon.
Korean-born owner Heewon Marshall came to the U.S. in 2004 by way of Japan, where she was an insurance salesperson. Looking for a change, she came to America, eventually ending up in New York City. While there, she actually avoided fraternizing with Koreans so that she could learn English. One hot summer week day, she took a break from her job search and hopped a train up the Hudson to explore beyond the city limits. On the train, she met her future husband, which is how she came to live here. Raves from her husband and his friends about her great home cooking eventually pushed her to open Seoul Kitchen almost three years ago.
Located on Beacon’s east end, the compact restaurant accommodates about 20 people, who sit on low stools and benches in a vibrant plum-purple and moss-green dining room.
Marshall is ever on hand, explaining the dishes and guiding customers unfamiliar with the cuisine. She usually recommends bibimbap, Korea’s signature dish. Consisting of squash, carrot, radish, soy bean sprouts, fried seaweed, and brown rice, the dish is dramatically topped with a fried egg at the last moment, then mixed together (“bibim” means mix and “bap” means rice) with gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste).
“The vegetables are all lightly cooked separately to keep their individual flavors,” says Marshall. “It’s a very traditional, old-fashioned dish — and it’s also gluten-free.”
You also must try the chapchae, or sweet potato noodles. These jewel-like transparent treats are associated with festive occasions and have a distinctive chewy texture. There’s also beef and pork bulgogi and short ribs marinated in Marshall’s proprietary sauce. Order with a side of fried napa cabbage, kimchi dumplings, and spicy rice cakes; wash it all down with cinnamon and persimmon fruit juice, a popular drink in Korea.
The menu responds to the weather: when it’s rainy or cold, Marshall gets to work making satisfying stews like Doenjang jjigae — vegetables and bean curd simmered in bean paste. “I use my own stock, I never use water,” she says. “I put in seaweed and vegetables and boil it for half the day.”
With warmer days on the horizon, she’ll also be whipping up Patbingsu: shaved ice with a red bean topping — a refreshing way to top off a meal.
If you’re looking for the Korean barbecue experience with tableside chefs, head to O’Sho steakhouse in Poughkeepsie. You might have noticed the fortress-like building on Route 9 across from the Poughkeepsie Galleria Mall. Here Korean BBQ is prepared at your table by chefs using smoke-less grills. Kimchi and rice make appropriate side dishes.
Or visit Toro in Fishkill. Though it advertises sushi on the sign, the restaurant has a robust Korean menu, too. In fact, Korean-Japanese restaurants are a common combination, with Korean being the spicier of the two. Here you’ll find Kalbi, which is grilled marinated short ribs that you assemble into a little rice bundle cradled in lettuce. Also try the bossam, steamed pork belly with spiced radish and napa cabbage; and variations on traditional bibimbap.
If you go...