Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Neighborhood Korean at Al Bae Nae

ES and I discovered Al Bae Nae back in winter, a Korean restaurant tucked away in a small Aurora strip mall next to M Mart (not to be confused with H Mart) and the intriguing Havana Spa. Pleased with both the dishes and their price point, it was only a matter of time before we returned with friends in tow. Seven people at the table means more dishes to sample, and that night we did a pretty thorough job of trying something from each section of the menu.
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Makguksu, a bowl of cold soba noodles topped with assorted vegetables in sweet and spicy sauce, was rather watery at the bottom but no less refreshing for its complex layering of textures and flavors. An oxtail soup, kkori gomtang, was soothing and deeply flavored with beef and scallions. And a dish of jajangbap took the same porky, oniony, roasted soybean sauce that typically appears on noodles and stir-fried it with rice to great effect. Actually, the huge, steamed "Pyeongyang-style" dumplings were the only real disappointment: big and bland and impossible to eat without their mushy fillings disintegrating.
When we'd tried to order the kkampunggi, described on the menu as "fried chicken with hot pepper sauce," we'd been informed they were out. Undaunted, we agreed to the shrimp version instead, and it turned out to be my favorite dish of the night. Whole shrimp were coated in some kind of tapioca or potato starch batter, giving the fried crustaceans a wonderful and interesting gluey and chewy—yet crisp—shell. The barely spicy, overly sweet sauce might have been reminiscent of a Chinese takeout joint's sweet-and-sour, but it also shared the same addictive quality.
Then there was Al Bae Nae's tteokbokki: chewy cylinders of rice cake paired with red peppers, scallions, onions, cut-up hot dogs, and fish cake and simmered in a gochujang-based sauce. It was sweeter and less spicy than usual, but there's always something about the odd, junk-food mash-up quality of this dish that makes me love it no matter what. (Though I should say that the cheese version ES and I tried the first time involved American cheese and maybe shredded mozzarella swirled into the sauce—a experience I only advise if you're down with tasting processed cheese food in your Korean meal.)

Seven of us managed to pretty much clean up all the dishes, a feat no less impressive for the relatively small bill we received at the end. With plenty more to try on the menu, Al Bae Nae might just become a regular destination.

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