Nordeast to Far East
4920 Central Avenue NE, Columbia Heights; (612) 572-8535
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:00 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sunday noon-9:30 p.m.
Since I've lived in Minnesota, I've taken easily 30 people for their first-ever Korean meals, and I feel absolutely breezy about it at this point: Don't worry, I assure them. You'll love it. And they always do. There's something about Korean cuisine that feels familiar to Americans--it lacks the fish-sauce note of Thai food, it isn't architectural and formal like Japanese cookery. I'd even say it's more comfortable than quite a few European cuisines--not a lot of game, no complicated sauces or weird cheeses. And what's the difference between panchan--the little pickle dishes used to jazz up foods or clear the palate--and hot-dog relish or coleslaw? Not all that much. Between kalbi, barbecued short ribs, and your basic backyard rack? Aside from a saltier marinade and a sprinkling of sesame seeds, very little.
Nowhere is this easygoing cuisine more accessible than at Jang Won, the Columbia Heights Chinese and Korean restaurant that now fills what was once a Pannekoeken Huis. (Look carefully and you can pick out the Dutch-fusion carpet pattern.) Beginners will love to start their meal with an order of mandoo, the Korean meat-filled dumplings, which at Jang Won are bland, comforting, and nearly indistinguishable from Russian meat pierogi. An order of ten giant dumplings arrives nestled in a steamer tray and costs $7.25. But don't order both them and the gyoza ($3.95), because Jang Won's gyoza (customarily small, lively Japanese meat dumplings) are just deep-fried mandoo. My plate quickly filled with oil as the dumplings drained--it was rather unpleasant.
The other appetizers I tried were also straight out of the deep fryer, though not necessarily bad for it. Breaded and fried scallops were tender and sweet, but plain. (The menu says they are "market price," which on my visit meant $4.95, a good deal for a plate of a dozen.) "Sour Crab" is a quartered soft-shelled crab, batter-dipped and deep fried; its market price on my visit was $8.95. Akinashi tofu ($3.25) is four sticks of bean curd, belted round the middle with a decorative strip of seaweed, and...deep fried. I recommend getting one or two appetizers for a party of four--all the frying gets repetitive otherwise.
On my visits I focused on the Korean portions of the menu, sidestepping the Chinese-American dishes that inexplicably remind me of The Fonz--the beef chow meins, shrimp egg foo yungs, lemon chickens, and such. Among the Korean dishes, the best were the simple preparations, like the long, chewy cha jang mein noodles ($6.95) with black bean sauce. Add a little vinegar from a shaker on the table and the dish packs a sour-salty punch not unlike salt-and-vinegar potato chips.
Jang Won's versions of bulgogi (spicy, barbecued slices of beef) or taigogi (slices of pork prepared in the same way), are a lot like buffalo wings--spicy, oily, salty, and pleasantly sour. (Both are $8.95.) Duk gook ($6.95), a big, steamy soup, consists of a white-miso broth with a mandoo dumpling, a bit of scrambled egg, a tiny amount of beef, and chewy slices of dumpling dough. I never found kalbi ribs ($9.95) on the menu, but when I saw them on another table, I ordered them and they were sweet and chewy in a delicious way reminiscent of beef jerky.
One bit of advice for the Jang Won-bound--order less than you would customarily, because the portions are gigantic. Consider the gan puong prawns: These battered, butterflied, deep-fried, tail-free shrimp are very light and tasty, the sort of thing that would be right at home at any oceanfront seafood shack, but for $18.95 you get about a cubic mountain of them. They'd make an entrée for two or even three people and an appetizer for four or five, but they're not the sort of thing that reheats well, so plan accordingly. The prawns, by the way, come with a very tasty, sweet vinegar dipping sauce, a bowl of liquid in which float big dried chiles, chopped onions, and tiny squares of pineapple, all creating a nice sweet-and-sour accent.
Other Jang Won advice? Steer clear of the very expensive dishes like the pal bo chae, seafood in an undistinguished, brown vinegar sauce that goes for a whopping $18.95. Though the menu described it as containing eight kinds of sautéed seafood, I counted only five (sea cucumber, mussels, scallops, squid, and shrimp). You didn't think I'd actually go and count them, did you? Well, I have that much free time. I really do.
All in all, while I admired Jang Won's accessibility and tasty comfort foods, I still prefer more refined local Korean houses like the Sole Cafe, Mirror of Korea, and Shilla. Those places, to dwell on just one detail, offer delicate, adventurous, varied panchan; at Jang Won I never saw more than three (kimchi, that chile-dressed fermented cabbage; shredded, pickled daikon radish with a bit of chili; and, sometimes, a combination of chopped pickled daikon and chopped raw onions). And for those panchan I had to hound my servers, who seemed distinctly reluctant to provide them, or chopsticks and water for that matter, to people who weren't regulars. If you want those things, be prepared to make a stink. If you want a beer or another alcoholic drink, like the Korean liquors Jang Won serves, you've got to know to ask for them, since the menu bears no indication that they're available.
All that said, I've still found a little room in my heart for Jang Won: It's a cheap, slouchy, pleasant sort of place, and spying on the other tables seemed to reveal that it thrives on the perfect, organic connection between Nordeast's meat-loaf traditionalism and its Far Eastern counterpart.
BLUEBERRY STEAK: I was busy trying to make the cat do the Vida Loca dance, and her little loincloth was indeed flipping seductively, and I was just about to trip the sprinkler system to replicate that part in the Ricky Martin video where it's raining, when suddenly it occurred to me--wouldn't a picnic be lovely? So I called up Terry Cuddy, who with her husband John runs Rush River Produce, a pick-your-own berry farm about 15 miles southeast of Red Wing.
I told Cuddy that the scuttlebutt around town was that blueberries grew outdoors; she didn't disagree, and she should know. In fact, she explained, the Rush River fields (which also contain black, white, and red currants, gooseberries, and raspberries) feature four acres of Northblue highbush blueberries--the very tall, very productive hybrids that are the source of most commercial berries. The Cuddys also plant three acres of half-high varieties, which are crosses between highbush and wild, low blueberries.
"There are quite a lot of varieties of blueberries, literally hundreds," Cuddy explained, "and there are dozens that are winter-hardy and will grow in our area. The variety of berries gives us a nice extended period for picking: Patriot and Bluecrop will get nice large berries in early July, while Nelson and Elliot get their fruit in August." Do people have favorite varieties, the way they do for apples? "Oh yes. The berries have different flavor characteristics--some are super-juicy, or a little firmer, a little sweeter, a little more tart. All blueberries are a little tart at the beginning of their ripening, so you can pick to your taste that way, too.
"I like a smaller berry for baking, for pancakes and such," Cuddy added, "but the highbush berries make a great pie. In fact, the very first berries to ripen are--how can I put this for a city person?--they can really be the size of a quarter. They're like the steak of the blueberry family. I like to make pie out of those: They're a wonder to see in a pie crust with whipped cream."
All right, I'm sold. But wait! There's more! It turns out that the farm is way up on a hill in the St. Croix Valley: "There's a beautiful scenic view from where we are," says Cuddy. "People come out and bring picnics--we have picnic tables, or you can just sit out under a tree. And you can eat as many berries as you want. We also have swing sets and climbing toys for kids, there's lots of flowers to look at if someone's not into picking. Bring your kids, bring your dogs, try some berries." Perfect! Or rather, purrrrrrrfect. Now all I have to do is rig up a little berry-picking outfit for my feline companion.
(The farm, open Thursday through Sunday 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., is less than an hour and a half from the Twin Cities; berries cost $2.25 a pound, and the Cuddys provide containers. For more information, call (715) 594-3648, or send a postcard to Rush River Produce, 4098 200th Ave. W., Maiden Rock, WI, 54750.)
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.