Sunday, April 24, 2011
Wando Fish BBQ Restaurant: Excellent Fish, Kimchi and Pickled Garlic
Barbecue joints serving ribs or pork belly may reign supreme on the streets of Koreatown, but tucked away in a nondescript mini-mall is a rare establishment where the flame touches only seafood – grilled, braised or simmered into a spicy stew.
Wando Fish BBQ Restaurant has just 11 tables and could easily be missed if it weren’t for the smoky aroma tickling your nose from the main strip on Western Avenue. The restaurant’s traditional grilling method using charcoal instead of gas gives its dishes their enticingly smoky flavor and charred skin that keeps the mostly Korean clientele coming back for more.
Wando refers to a port city that is one of South Korea’s biggest Meccas for seafood and hometown of restaurant owner Chang Ryul “Bulldog” Oh. As a former professional boxer back in the day, Oh often loaded up on lean protein from the day’s catch that his mother would expertly prepare. “I’ve always been more of a seafood guy than a meat guy,” he says. Hence his restaurant’s singular emphasis on seafood was born. He is also obsessive about his ingredients, shopping at the markets himself at the crack of dawn six days a week.
The menu offers items that are staples at most Korean households’ dinner tables, such as grilled fish, whose selection alone number more than 13. The charcoal-grilled mackerel comes sizzling on a hotplate topped with minced green onions and a lemon wedge on the side -- lightly salted and reveling in its own natural oils to perfect juiciness and crispy edges.
For heartier fare, the braised sable fish (among 16 kinds offered) is laden with soft daikon radish and tofu chunks that have absorbed all the red-hot, garlicky, spicy and sweet sauce after simmering in it for hours. The sauce is made from a broth that includes dried baby anchovy, onion, daikon radish, green onion, dashi, ginger, bonito flakes and surprisingly, pineapple. The broth has refreshing notes of radish and bare hints of sweetness and tartness.
All the soups and fish stews are made from that broth and the depth of flavors attests to the attention and care put into it. The cod fish stew is a cornucopia of vegetables such as daikon radish, green onion, bean sprout, enoki mushroom and tofu dotted with thin slices of bone-in cod fillets. The Korean word for the stew, Mae Woon Tang, as listed on the menu, translates literally to “spicy soup,” so those ordering this should be prepared to sweat profusely and take intermittent digs into the bowl of burgundy-hued rice – the color a result of white rice peppered with black rice -- and peas that is at once mild and nutty like rice that has formed a brown crust on the bottom.
The squid japchae (only found on the Korean-language menu) is a winning, feistier cousin of the classic glass noodle dish stir-fried with soy sauce and sesame oil with carrot, green chili pepper and green onion, replacing the standard beef strips with squid to chewy effect. This japchae is best washed down with a drink, as it packs a punch from an addition of Korean red pepper paste, or kochujang, which the original japchae lacks.
An added uniqueness to this four-year-old establishment is that all orders come with a starter salad of greens, pineapple, strawberries and blackberries, smothered with a mango-pineapple dressing that is sweet and sour.
In many Korean restaurants, the quality of the banchan, or side dishes, is sometimes more important to patrons than the house specialty itself. Wando’s banchan are varied, fresh and at any given time feature at least four kinds of kimchi, the fiery and garlicky national dish of fermented everything: from napa cabbage to radish. Standouts include moogeunji, a type of napa cabbage kimchi that is aged for longer than the normal fermentation of a few days between the making and consuming of kimchi. Despite a longer fermentation period, the kimchi is crisp and isn’t pungent in a way that says the kimchi has seen better days – ideal as an accompaniment to milder dishes or a base for kimchi stew.
Another must-have is the garlic jjang-ajji, raw garlic that has been pickled in a mix of soy sauce, vinegar and water for 17 months until each clove has sucked up the liquid, taken on a darker tone and transformed into priceless gems. Bite into these extra-crunchy suckers that are salty, tangy and decidedly subtle in their pungent garlic flavor, and you’re hooked. Thankfully, pickled garlic mutes any lingering smell in your mouth, so proceed with confidence.
At the end of the meal, patrons can carry out a box of fresh mangos, blackberries or bell peppers that the owner will place by their tables as a token of his appreciation. Not sure what to do with 30 bell peppers? Maybe it’s time to do some pickling. I made blackberry jam for the first time thanks to boxes he gave me when I went one time.
Price: Grilled fish $8.99 to $19.99; braised fish $16.99 to $23.99; fish stews $8.99 to $15.99 (most dishes feed two or more); noodle dishes $8.99 to $12.99.
Best dishes: Grilled mackerel (Go Deung Uh Goo Ee), braised sable fish (Eun Dae Goo Jorim), squid chapjae (in Korean menu only) and cod fish stew (Dae Goo Mae Woon Tang). Also, extra-fermented kimchi and pickled garlic that are complimentary.
Details: Open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Lunch specials are Mondays through Fridays until 3 p.m.). Beer, soju, traditional Korean liquors. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.