Before returning to Richmond, I lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade. One of its greatest glories, in the center of the city, with palm-lined streets and art deco buildings, is Koreatown. The neighborhood, among other things, is a veritable culinary rabbit hole to be explored.
On the subject of rabbit holes and Korean food, one of my favorite dishes, soondubu, is an excellent example of onomatopoeia — it’s the uncurdled, silken tofu soup found in bubbling hot pots served in Korean restaurants around the globe. Funny thing, I’d all but forgotten about the nostril-searing, sputtering and spattering little cauldrons of brick-red broth and pillowy tofu until I recently found myself in Jackson Ward, facedown in a bowl of it ($6) at the newly expanded JKogi Seoul Street Eats.
Other than noting that this version’s spice level is significantly dialed back — which is perfectly suitable for me — my only wish is that it came in more of a cauldronlike traditional hot pot in lieu of the thin, tottering stainless steel mixing bowl that arrives at my table. That and I want twice as much of it.
JKogi feels a little unfinished. And considering the half-done graffiti piece on one wall and the Target screen divider distinguishing the dining area from paint cans, two highchairs and employee bikes, perhaps it is. But it matters not. Music from Phoenix and Vampire Weekend is blasting from the speakers, there are always a few folks eating in, and judging from the number of times the phone rings on each visit, this place is doing a fairly good takeout and delivery business.
The staff is friendly and a little frazzled. It seems like a small family affair — back-of-house, front-of-house, all one house. Unless there’s a pressing need, no one really mans the counter or dining room. Each time the door dings to alert for an incoming customer or the pervasive phone rings, someone runs through the swinging doors and out of the kitchen to answer the call.
You’ll want to try the kimbap ($6-$7.50), tightly wrapped maki-esque sushi rolls stuffed with such things as pork belly, tuna salad, chicken katsu, kimchi, fish cake, sweet radish and the inevitable Spam and egg. Each order comes with a choice of four sauces. I suggest the red pepper hot sauce, which JKogi calls “No Spicy, No Cry,” for the whole lot.
Kimchi pancakes ($5) are exactly what I crave, always: warm, crisp, salty, oily, tart and spicy. And right beneath that thin veneer of crunch, the inside elegantly melts away with pungent smacks of hot cabbage kimchi. I can eat them like a tub of popcorn in a movie theater.
Probably the most universal and approachable Korean dish is bibimbap, an amalgam of meat and various vegetables — pickled and otherwise. JKogi’s version ($8-$9) would satisfy any late-night kegger attendee, but it’s difficult to tell whether you correctly received your order of rib-eye or pork belly with it. But although the bright, pickled white radish, cucumbers and carrots get lost when matched with the vividly spicy and sour spikes of kimchi, I venture to say that the sum is greater than its parts.
The sticky, peppery and oily – perhaps they’re double-fried — fire chicken wings (five for $6.50, 10 for $12) served at JKogi will leave you with a safety-orange clown mouth for at least an hour and a hankering for an ice-cold beer posthaste.
As with any no-frills Korean restaurant, the staff is there to take your order and bring your food, period. There will be no discussion of the vegetables in season or banter about whether the salmon is better than the tuna. If you order takeout, make certain to check the contents of your bag before you walk out the door. On two occasions I receive missing or mistaken orders. The latter is fortuitous — my erroneous order of thukbokki ($6) is an exciting surprise. The gooey, fire-hot rice-and-fish cakes, with spurs of carrots and cabbage, is a new dish for me.
There’s a comfort food of a certain kind to help mend a broken heart, to aid the recovery of a night of excess and to keep warm on a cold day. Many identify chicken noodle soup as the hero for these occasions. Me? I’ll have to get a double order, but I’ll be elbow deep in that soodubu, thank you very much. S
JKogi Seoul Street Eats
Sundays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-midnight; Fridays-Saturdays: 11 a.m.-3 a.m.
327 N. Second St.