Don’t get surly started on the sorry state of Korean restaurants around New York. Uh-oh, too late. “Unfortunately,” observes New York hounddom’s toughest grader of Korean chow, “even the best inevitably go into decline after their first few years. Most settle into a comfort zone of utter mediocrity.”
The smart approach is to pass on the big, all-purpose Korean houses with lengthy menus and instead seek out smaller specialty restaurants. “Those places tend to stay good for a longer time,” surly explains. Here are some current favorites from the rich Korean scene in northern New Jersey, most of them clustered on the bustling Broad Avenue strip in Palisades Park:
Nakji Daehak Ddukbokki Gwa, Palisades Park: Maybe the best of the boonshiks—casual eateries that dish up Korean comfort food. Go for ddukbokki (rice cakes), noodles, bokkeumbap (fried rice), fried meats or seafood, kimbap (rice rolls), and other homey chow. “It has a very mom-and-pop feel,” says surly, “and the food tastes like what my mom would make.” The mood is warm and whimsical, starting with the name, which translates as “Octopus College, Rice Cake Major.”
Ddo Ddo Wah, Palisades Park: Dependable and filling chow from another boonshik, across the street from Nakji Daehak Ddukbokki Gwa.
Myung Dong, Palisades Park: Just up the same block, this larger restaurant specializes in kalgooksoo (hand-cut noodles in soup), sujebi (wheat flake soup), and sujebi/spicy jjigae hybrids.
Mandarin Restaurant, Palisades Park: This Korean-Chinese place makes one of the region’s best versions of jja jang myun (noodles in black bean sauce). It’s upstairs in a Korean shopping plaza, a few blocks south on Broad Avenue.
Arirang Mandoo, Palisades Park: First-rate steamed dumplings, takeout only. Make sure you’re getting a fresh batch.
Shinpo, Cliffside Park: Some of the best naeng myun (buckwheat noodles) around. Call ahead: This restaurant’s annual off-season hiatus has been alarmingly long this year.
You-Chun, Palisades Park: Another dependable naeng myun specialist, which also has locations in Manhattan and Flushing.
Gam Mee Ok, Fort Lee: The signature dish is sul long tang, the milky, long-cooked beef bone soup. Also recommended: bin dae dduk (mung bean pancakes) and soondae (blood sausage). The Jersey location has eclipsed the Manhattan original, in surly’s book.
So Gong Dong, Fort Lee and Palisades Park: Soon dubu jjigae (soft tofu stew) is the must-order here. This place has slipped a bit since the late ’90s, when some rated it the best outside Korea, but it still beats anyplace else around New York. surly gives the Fort Lee location the edge over the one in Palisades Park.
Boom Boom Chicken, Fort Lee: Leader of the flock of newish Korean fried chicken shacks. It’s somehow related to Bon Chon Chicken (though it no longer bears the name), yet seems to top the other Bon Chons in juicy, flavorful meat and crisp finish.
So Moon Nan Jib, Palisades Park: Among the Korean generalists, this is one of the best. “No longer outstanding, as it was in the late 1990s,” surly writes, “but for your all-purpose needs (barbecue, stews, bibim bap, pajun, etc.), it’s far better than anything in Manhattan.” equinoise ranks its wood-chip barbecue among the finest in the New York region and adds that panchan are fresh, varied, and plentiful.
Nakji Daehak Ddukbokki Gwa, a.k.a. Hakyojongei [Bergen County]
442 Broad Avenue (between Edsall and Washington), Palisades Park, NJ
Ddo Ddo Wah, a.k.a. Oh Oh Wha [Bergen County]
421 Broad Avenue (at Washington), Palisades Park, NJ
Myung Dong [Bergen County]
452 Broad Avenue (between Edsall and Washington), Palisades Park, NJ
Mandarin Restaurant [Bergen County]
In Palisades Park Plaza, 110 Broad Avenue #10 (at Harwood), Palisades Park, NJ
Arirang Mandoo, a.k.a. Pelicana [Bergen County]
318 Broad Avenue (between Palisades and Central), Palisades Park, NJ
Shinpo [Bergen County]
606 Anderson Avenue (at Lincoln), Cliffside Park, NJ
You-Chun [Bergen County]
135 Broad Avenue (at Homestead), Palisades Park, NJ
156-03 Northern Boulevard (at 156th Street), Flushing, Queens
You-Chun [Herald Square]
5 W. 36th Street (near Fifth Avenue), Manhattan
Gam Mee Ok [Bergen County]
485 Main Street (near Edwin), Fort Lee, NJ
Gam Mee Ok [Herald Square]
43 W. 32nd Street (between Broadway and Fifth Avenue), Manhattan
So Gong Dong [Bergen County]
130 Main Street (between Parker and Kaufers), Fort Lee, NJ
So Gong Dong [Bergen County]
118 Broad Avenue (near Harwood), Palisades Park, NJ
Boom Boom Chicken [Bergen County]
Formerly Bon Chon Chicken
553 Main Street (near Jones), Fort Lee, NJ
So Moon Nan Jib [Bergen County]
238 Broad Avenue (between Brinkerhoff and Homestead), Palisades Park, NJ