The influence of Korean cuisine is increasingly evident on local menus. It seems like everywhere there are versions of Korean fried chicken, burgers, hot dogs, and pizzas accented with kimchi and sauces spiked with the traditional hot pepper paste called gochujang. The irony is that few people can name the half-dozen or so Twin Cities Korean restaurants, and even fewer have dined at one. That might change with the opening of Dong Hae Korean Grill & Sushi in the former Nami site in Minneapolis. Not only is this a pleasant, spacious, and chic setting for an introductory sampling of Korean specialties, but it comes with a bit of heritage. The owners and some of the staff hail from Dong Yang, a tiny grocery store and hidden café in Columbia Heights persistently rated as a top place for Korean cuisine.
Korean menus can be a bit daunting, and the lengthy bill of fare at Dong Hae is no exception. But there are a solid handful of non-controversial choices that can provide a tasty initiation to this lesser-known branch of Asian cooking.
In the appetizer category, a definite highpoint is the deep-fried dumplings—a half-dozen hefty, lightly crisped meat- and vegetable-filled turnovers sided with a pleasant chili dipping sauce. If you enjoy foods with a bit of heat, the Korean-style chicken wings deliver. Lightly fried and swaddled in a glowing red-orange glaze, these tender, meaty drummies definitely give Buffalo wings a run for their money. If you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone just a bit, the pan-fried kimchi cake should be on your list. It’s a sort of Asian flatbread pizza topped with the legendary spicy fermented cabbage. Although the texture wavered a bit between crunch and a bit soggy, the flavor dimension was uniformly terrific and pleasantly spicy.
By far the best main dish is the galbi—the traditional Korean riff on beef shortribs. The thinly sliced bone-in chops are marinated in a teriyaki sauce, grilled, then served on a sizzling platter with scallions on top and grilled onions underneath. The ribs deliver a divine smoky, sweet flavor, and lots of meaty goodness. If you don’t like messing your fingers gnawing on ribs, a similar taste experience can be enjoyed with Dong Hae’s version of the classic beef bulgogi. In this dish, the thinly sliced beef is grilled off the bone. It didn’t have nearly as much BBQ taste as the galbi, but it’s a safe bet for just about anyone. So too is the japchae—a popular, stir-fried glass noodle salad mingled with beef, onion, and assorted vegetables. In contrast to some versions, this one didn’t pack any notable flavor beyond the breath of the wok, but it’s got a lot going for it. A final recommended choice would be the stir-fried pork—a generous serving of meat, vegetables, and mushrooms seasoned with a peppery chili sauce.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of a Korean meal is the assortment of side dishes, called banchan, that accompany the entrees: small plates of kimchi, pickled peppered cucumber, lotus root, and seasoned bean sprouts. And in case your group wants to hedge its bets, there’s a very serviceable list of Japanese specialties, including notably fresh sushi, sashimi, and specialty rolls. The latter even includes a couple of Korean-themed creations, and there’s an all-you-can-eat sushi option to boot.
The one key thing the restaurant lacked on our visits was a liquor license. Korean food screams for cold beer or multiple knockbacks of the strong distilled spirit called soju. Hopefully by the time this prints, it will be secured. [Editor's Note: It has!] In my book, this is exactly the kind of interesting and unconventional spot that contributes to the vibrancy of a downtown area and serves to expand the horizons of adventuresome eaters. I have my fingers crossed it will yet prove successful.
251 1st Ave. N., Ste. 100, Mpls., 612-333-1999, donghaeres.com