Sunday, December 16, 2007
Fort Lee: the Kimchee Belt
Just across the Hudson river from Manhatten lies Fort Lee, New Jersey, gateway to a Korean Cuisine Empire that runs through the neighboring towns of Palisades Park (35% Korean Population) and Leonia (25% Korean). The Koreans mostly emigrated here after the burst of the 1980s "Asian Bubble" economic explosion, and we in New Jersey are the beneficiaries by way of having some of the best Asian food right on our doorstep. Welcome to the Kimchee Belt of New Jersey.A lot of Korean restaurants follow local specialty themes - barbeque, bimbambap rice dishes, or in this case, soft tofu soups. The So Kong Dong Soft Tofu Restaurant at 130 Main St (right where Main street heads downhill towards Edgewater) is so popular that there usually is a crowd on weekdays for lunch and there is a row of benches outside for people to sit on while they wait.Almost all of the dishes cost $8, and all of them are heavy, spicy soft tofu stews. First the table is covered in kimchee and pickle dishes. When I was at University we used to consider kimchee the ultimate in strange food, so much so that among my friends we used the term "that's really kimchee" to refer to anything wierd. However, the years have softened me when it comes to things like red pepper squid pickles and spicy cabbage fermented with oysters in underground pots, so now kimchee is something I actually miss when eating in Hungary.Next the waiter brings a big heated stone bowl of hot rice, fills your korean metal rice bowls, and then pours tea into the nearly empty rice bowl. The tea-rice becomes your end of the meal "extra bonus" soup of hot burned rice soup. But first of all, there is the tofu soup.Fumie chose the seafood soft tofu soup. I went with the beef and kimchee. I chose hot and spicy - there is even a category of "extremely spicy" on the menu, but that can be a nasty surprise in a real Korean lunch joint. The kimchee course comes with a plate holding raw eggs which you crack into your soup as it arrives - bubbling furiously in its heated stone crock - at your table.But life is bigger than simply tofu soups... Just down the street on 2053 Lemoine Avenue is the Dae Ga Barbeque Resturant, which specializes in kalbi and other Korean grilled meat cooked at your table, as well as seafood.When we walked in there were fish tanks containing some of the little critters for our inspection. What the hell are these things? Next to pork and rabbits, it does not get more unkosher than this. I am pretty good at marine biology, and I am willing to eat all kinds of ocean slime, but these things look like extras from the buffet table at Jabba the Hutt's Star Wars Snack Shack. I am sure that they are tasty, but it may be some time before I get around to trying out this version of "something new." These are a bit too kimchee for me... In fact, Fumie met her match with a kimchee spiced crab pickle that we all graciously allowed her to have all to her self. For the historical record, she did not eat this. This is Fumie's seafood Waterloo.Dae Ga is where the Korean community goes to eat some seriously good meat, and we ordered kalbi - beef short ribs - and sliced beef tongue. Many places heat up the table burner and allow you to have at your own meat, but Dae Ga sends over their own staff of experienced BBQ waitresses to do your meat right. The Japanese have sushi masters. The Koreans have grill masters.My brother in law Alec thought the kalbi a bit too fatty (and went with the rather tasty chicken BBQ) but then, fat is where the flavor is, and these were excellent, some of the best beef I have had in a multifaceted country where we can both be proud of some damn good high quality Korean beef and have a frigging retarded fascist-appointed Republican scum-sucking war criminal genocidal bastard in the White house.Dae Ga serves up a serious spread of kimchee and pickles, and the best way to wash it down is a bottle of shoju - Korean vodka, albeit about half as strong as a western vodka, but a nice clean taste that makes everything you have just experienced - alien sea slugs, pickled crabs, fatty ribs - seem just that much more pleasant. Especially if - as Alec pointed out - it seems to have been labeled in the Korean pronounciation of "Gypsy Jew".Before Fort Lee was famed as a Korean immigrant center it had long been home to a large Japanese community. The Japanese still have their own bakeries, and as soon as Fumie found the Parisienne Bakery on 250 Main Street she started asking about how much it would cost to buy a flat in Fort Lee. I mean... they have yakisoba noodle sandwiches to go...Not to mention an-pan, a red-bean sweet roll, alongside a host of french-inspired Tokyo style bakery goods, decent coffee, and a Beard Papa cream puff outlet in the store.Beard Papa is a chain from Japan that specializes in filled-to-order cream puffs, pastry shells filled with a thick custard that is addictive and will kill you if you don't find professional help in time.Fumie biting into a green tea custard cream puff. Just after this she became really interested in the Fort Lee real estate situation. This was inspired by the fact that there were something like six different local Japanese language community newspapers on offer for free in the shop.One thing to note about towns like Fort lee that lie just across the river from Manhatten - there are some pretty affluent folks in the neighborhood. Jersey towns rate themselves in a pecking order based on how high their local taxes are and which celebrity lives in which town - it's a class system which would make England look downright civilized, if that can even be imagined. But one sure indicator of how many gazzillionaires live in an area is the local liquor shop - Hudson Market in Fort Lee had a special section set aside where we were able to see these fine wines on sale. I am sure these are very nice beverages... but I'll stick to a nice five dollar bottle of Hungarian Villanyi Pinot Noir, thankyou very much.