BLACK RIVER Traveling along the 45 mph stretch of Route 3 just outside Fort Drum, motorists drive past a number of mom-and-pop diners, military-surplus stores and a place weve noticed for years, Songs Barber Shop.
Last fall, a new business opened next to the barbershop. Its called Taste of Korea, a full-fledged restaurant specializing in Korean cuisine. Its owned by Song Ortego, who cuts hair by day and serves up authentic Korean food by night.
Walking into the small eatery is like walking into someones house. Its small and homey, bordering on homely. Several Asian women were chatting away in their native tongue.
A congenial 40-something gentleman appeared and showed us to the dining room. Menus were presented six pages containing more than 70 items.
I understand kimchi and bulgogi and pork belly and squid. But dwen jang ji gae and dong tae jji ga and boo dea jun gol?
Luckily I brought a Korean friend along on this review or I would have been overwhelmed. And a third member of our review team had spent two years in Korea.
But without them, I still would have survived. The menu contains English translations: dwen jang ji gae = bean paste soup, tofu, clams, veggies; dong tae jji ga = pollack stew; boo dea jun gol = oops, no translation on this one. But its listed in the noodle bowl category.
And Ernesto, our host and server (also Songs husband, we found out later), was able to competently explain and recommend dishes on the extensive menu.
First, drinks. Water all around in huge 20-ounce glasses (we were soon to learn the necessity of supersized water glasses) with slices of lemon served on a side plate.
We were intrigued by some of the beverages we spied in the tall glass-front cooler on the way in. Ernesto escorted us over to the cooler and showed us several varieties of Jinro soju, a potent rice-based liquor from Korea. We learned that its the most popular spirit in the world, even outselling Smirnoff vodka.
I suggested we each grab one of the little 10-ounce screwcap bottles, but that was quickly nixed by my Korean friend. One bottle will be more than enough for the three of us, I was advised.
Back at the table I found out why. This stuff is a cross between rubbing alcohol and rocket fuel. Although its not as potent as vodka, you drink it straight in chilled shot glasses. One bottle lasted our entire meal.
With suggestions from both our server and my buddy, we entered our order for six items. Portions are large and easily shared.
Aluminum chopsticks are your silverware. I supposed they could rustle up good ol knives and forks on request. Luckily, we were all pretty good with chopsticks. Even me.
We started our dinner with a seafood pancake ($10.95) and two dishes that are generally considered street food in Korea spicy rice cake (duk bok gi, $9.95) and fish cake soup (go chi o dang, $10.95).
Lets get this straight right now. Korean food is hot. Spicy hot. Most all of the dishes at Taste of Korea are available either medium or hot, but not mild. I voted medium on all, much to thechagrin of the Korean on my right.
In Korea, a seafood pancake is generally considered a snack rather than a meal.
Ours contained green onions and bits of shrimp and octopus. Rather than being sliced into pizza-like wedges, it came out as one big pancake on a plate. You have to attack it with your metal chopsticks, hacking it apart into manageable pieces.
It wasnt hot at all, as far as I was concerned. And if you dont like seafood, you can order a kimchi pancake, the same soft flour pancake with the traditional fermented cabbage.
Spicy rice cake was another story. Its not really a rice cake. Its more like a dumpling, in fact, made with sweet rice flour (not rice) and served with crisp veggies in a fiery chili paste sauce. Yeah, this ones hot.
Glad we ordered the fish cake soup. It helped dull the effects of the rice cake.
The fish cakes in the soup were kind of weird various sizes and shapes of something that looked like scrambled eggs from an Egg McMuffin. Or fried tofu. They were skewered and floating in a savory broth in a serving bowl that resembled a wok.
The broth was very tasty. Basically chicken stock, I would assume. But according to recipes Ive read, it was probably fortified with anchovies.
For our main course, we ordered stir-fry bulgogi ($12.95), barbecue pork belly ($14.95) and spicy octopus ($13.95).
Bulgogi consists of thin strips of beef that have been marinated for hours in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and ginger. It tasted fine, and were glad we paired it with the crispy stir-fried veggies. Its a pretty standard Korean dish and a safe place to start if youre new on the scene.
We ordered the spicy octopus (seasoned with red chili pepper paste and stir-fried with onions, green pepper, carrots and squash) in medium hotness and, believe me, it was HOT.
I cant imagine what hot would be like.
If youve never had octopus, it can be a little intimidating the first time. Its like eating a piece of rope that youd tie a boat to a dock with. Like chewing on rubber.
You might want to consider spicy squid, also on the menu.
Those huge glasses of water on the table were nearly on empty right about now and we still had one more dish to go the pork belly.
This might well have been the highlight of our meal. Pork is big in Korea, and if you like bacon (who doesnt?) youll like this one.
Most of the fat is rendered until youre left with tasty morsels of meat resembling chewy crumbled bacon. The barbecue sauce is not barbecue sauce like we think of it more like a sauce made with the ingredients of the bulgogi marinade.
And its not overly hot, either, so you can enjoy all the flavors without burning off any remaining taste buds in your mouth. Its tender meat with a slight kick.
Pork belly is usually served in lettuce wraps in this case it was served over a bed of cooling lettuce. Most meat dishes come with white rice on the side, as did this one.
Every meal comes with a number of side dishes, including three types of spicy kimchi cabbage, cucumber and radish little Korean salads that are seasoned and fermented, as well as bean sprouts and diced potatoes.
There are no desserts available.
Taste of Korea has a Korean chef who prepares the meals. However, the night we were there the restaurants owner,Song, took over the kitchen to give her cook a day off and did a fantastic job.
Dinner for three came to $81.96 before tip. The rocket fuel added $12 to the bill.
While we ordered six entrees with the intention of sharing, there are a dozen appetizers (some just smaller portions of main dishes) that you may want to consider.
The restaurant brings an authentic taste of Korea to the north country. We think youll like Taste of Korea.
One last tip: try responding to their welcoming greetings when you walk in with annyong haseyo (ahn-yong-ha-se-yo) hello in Korean and youll instantly be a part of the family.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Taste of Korea
29845 Route 3
Black River, N.Y.
Taste of Korea brings an authentic taste of Korea to the north country.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
OUR PICKS: Spicy rice cakes, fish cake soup, barbecue pork belly, stir-fry bulgogi