The days are long gone when you knew exactly what to expect in Koreatown, which has expanded beyond 32nd Street. Where once barbecue restaurants dominated — with fresh tofu and Korean Chinese restaurants backing them up — now the rapidly expanding neighborhood offers lots of fried chicken, Korean-French baked goods, corn dogs, pub grub, bubble teas, one of the city’s best food courts, and at least two restaurants specializing in cow intestines.
One of the newest restaurants in the neighborhood is Tosokchon, open three months at 14 East 33rd Street just east of Fifth Avenue. Seating about 50, it resembles a hanok, or Korean traditional house, with paper screens on the walls and dangling folk motifs. Owner Sang W. Kim has two other branches in Annandale, Virginia and Palisades Park, New Jersey.
Many of the dishes are homestyle, including tteokbokki ($12) — tubular rice cakes in sticky red gochujang with flattened sheets of fishcake. This might be a kid’s favorite, but will prove delightful to those of any age. Go to Tosokchon at lunchtime and find the diverse crowd enjoying one of the restaurant’s voluminous soups, of which the most popular is certainly yukgaejang kalguksu ($18). The heart of the dish is kalguksu, knife-cut wheat noodles freshly made on the premises, in this case submerged in a spicy broth with shreds of beef pot roast. The bowl is probably big enough to be shared by two, but nobody does.
Order mandoo with pork and vermicelli ($12) and have them deep fried instead of steamed, which renders the wrapper crunchy. Past these dishes, the restaurant’s idea of home cooking may diverge from your own in that the menu is offal heavy with unusual selections.
Prime among them is a blood sausage made only once a week, so it may run out by the time you want to order it. Now, this is not the crumbly and loamy blood sausage of the French, but a more slippery bite, filled with noodles, scallions, and soybean paste as well as blood. The menu offers several ways to enjoy it, including boiled and sliced on a small plate; in soups; and with other offal — such as lung and intestines — on a giant platter. The last (assorted soondae, $25) is the one to get, in which the sliced sausage glistens like purplish jewels.
In the same category of variety meats, and perhaps dating from the time when many more lived on farms, is dogani tang ($19), described on the menu as “boiled ox knee bones.” Gooey bits of cartilage bob around in a refreshingly simple soup said to be high in calcium; the same knee joints appear tossed with crunchy veggies in a tart and spicy sauce in dogani much ($35) with bonus slices of well-done beef roast served on the side.
Trotters play an important role, too. Jokbal ($20 small, $38 large) is a lovely platter of sliced pig feet glazed with soy sauce, ginger, and garlic, with more meat on the bones and cartilage than you may have thought a pig ever had. This dish makes a great drinking snack with sake, soju, or one of the new wave of Korean beers such as Kloud, which advertises its “water free gravity recipe” — whatever that is. To me it just tasted like lager.
There are surprises, too. Tosokchon does an excellent rendition of LA galbi ($38), a dish popping up on menus all over Koreatown. This style of thin-sliced barbecued beef rib originated in the City of Angels, and it is delicate and flavorful in a sweet and beefy sort of way.
Among the family style assortment of dishes at Tosokchon, there’s hangover soup. While NYC boasts many soups said to cure the headachy feeling after a night of drinking — from Mexico (menudo), Turkey (işkembe corbası), and the Czech Republic (garlic soup) — Korea offers a less soothing remedy.
Hangover soup ($25) comes in a big bowl brimming with organ meats like kidney, liver, and intestines in a dried pollack broth, along with branch-like burdock and scratchy ugeoji — the tough outside layers of cabbage, spinach, ferns, and other leafy vegetables. As I ate the soup, it seemed to me that it was medicinal but also intended as an admonition to never drink so much again. I do recommend it for a hangover.