The Venue: If your only experience eating in a grocery store is at the healthy self-service counter in Whole Foods, allow Dong Yang Oriental Food in Columbia Heights to fix that. Dong Yang has a tiny restaurant in the back of its Asian grocery, and on weekends, a charming, all-business old codger -- part busboy, part informal host -- keeps watch over its 25 seats. They don't have a menu; just look at the pictures above the cash register if you don't know what to order. In contrast, Hoban is a sunny, much larger restaurant located in an Eagan strip mall right off Highway 13.
The Weigh-in: There are a number of Korean joints in town, but this week's match-up is an exercise in dramatic contrasts. Do you want informal or formal ambiance? Would you like to see a twelve-item menu or a longer, more diverse one? Are you in the mood for a quick grab-n-go or a more relaxed dining adventure? Do you want to eat with wooden or metal chopsticks? With its more extensive menu, better booths, and leisurely paced meals, Hoban definitely has the advantage.
Round 1: The pickles As you'd expect, both places serve small side dishes of pickled vegetables called banchan. These offer a bright, crunchy contrast to the sweet, savory, and tender main dish. At Dong Yang, the seaweed and pickled cucumber distinguish themselves from the more typical kimchi, egg, and potato sides. Hoban offers lightly pickled broccoli, amazing shredded daikon, and two types of spicy hot kimchi with their bulgogi. These four stand-out sides helped Hoban win this round.
Round 2 : The beef Typically bulgogi is thinly sliced beef that has been marinated and grilled. Both restaurants serve it on hot, cast iron griddles over sliced onions and topped with sesame seeds. However, slicing any meat as thin as possible is a quick recipe for dry and chewy kibble. Dong Yang's preparation preserves the juicy, tender texture of 16 hour smoked brisket. The umami that enhances the sweet and salty marinade is absolutely addictive. Hoban's beef had a similarly sweet sauce, but it was drier and less tender. This round definitely goes to Dong Yang.
Round 3: The spicy pork bulgogi Bulgogi isn't just beef, though. It can also come in pork and chicken varieties. So we also tried both kitchens' spicy pork version. Dong Yang's marinade was complex and flavorful, and as we continued to eat, the spicy sauce grew more smoky and sweet. Just as tender and juicy as the beef version, this is a great dish that improves the crunchy side pickles it comes with. Although Hoban's version is quite satisfying, it is also drier, simpler, and less tender than Dong Yang's take.
The winner is... Dong Yang. From the family-run kitchen that sends out piping hot plates of amazing food, to the courteous and friendly front of the house, this is grocery store eating like we've never seen before. This is also one of our new favorite destinations for a Saturday afternoon lunch.