Farideh Sadeghin is a chef and video host based in Brooklyn. As part of a new series, she explores New York City neighborhoods through their food and histories.
Most New Yorkers are more familiar with Manhattan’s Koreatown, however, real ones know that the majority of Koreans living in NYC are in Queens.
And along Northern Boulevard in Flushing, and just a bit farther east into neighboring Murray Hill – not to be confused with the Manhattan neighborhood that shares its name – you’ll reach an area chock full of Korean restaurants, karaoke and shops. This area is commonly known as Mukja Golmok, which roughly translates in Korean to “let’s eat alley.”
My good friend photographer Heami Lee grew up in Bayside, Queens, taking the bus or LIRR (pronounced by her friends growing up as “the Lure”) to this area, ordering BBQ and soju, singing karaoke, and roaming the streets. She took me out for a day of eating and reminiscing about the area she grew up knowing so well, and how much it has changed over the last 40 years.
A wave of Koreans immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, and by the time Lee’s family arrived in the 1980s, she said many Koreans had established businesses along bustling Union Street in Flushing. As more and more Chinese businesses came into the area, populating what is now one of many Chinatowns here in the city, Lee and her friends say Korean business owners moved farther out along Northern Boulevard. It’s here that you’ll find some of the best Korean food in the city, from BBQ to fried chicken, gimbap to juk.
We began our day at Canaan Bakery on Union Street. Cafe culture is big in the Korean community, Lee says. She and her friends would skip school and hang in coffee shops during the day or go to them on dates. We wandered down Northern Boulevard, drinks in hand, tearing off pieces of gombo-ppang, a sweet pastry with a streusel-like top, as Lee pointed out spots where she and her friends used to hang.
She was born in Korea but moved to the U.S. in the 1980s with her family when she was 5 years old. Like Lee and her family, many Koreans moved to this area because they knew someone from back home who had previously moved here. The community was already beginning to be established, so it was a place they knew they could come and feel comfortable. Shops and restaurants had already begun popping up, and with more Koreans moving here, more would open, offering the ingredients and foods that they were familiar with.
Take H Mart, for example. The Korean supermarket chain first opened in Woodside, Queens in 1982. Their slogan, “Feel at Home Wherever You Are From,” invites all to shop with them, but for Koreans in particular, it was a place they could go and find everything they needed to cook the dishes they craved. Today, there are more than 80 H Mart supermarkets across the United States, the company says. Filled with fresh vegetables, meats, seafood, and snacks, they’re considered a one-stop shop for many Korean cooks.
Lesser known grocery store Hanyang Mart, just off Northern Boulevard, is also packed with produce and grocery items, as well as freshly made hodu-gwaja, a popular street food pastry made from pounded walnuts and wheat flour, then filled with red bean paste and cooked in a walnut-shaped mold. Nearby Hansol Food (with two locations in Queens, one off Northern Boulevard and another off 162 Street) sells everything from traditional sweets, such as rice cakes layered and studded with dried fruits and nuts to songpyeon, traditional rice cakes usually in the shape of a half moon and filled with red bean paste or toasted sesame. The refrigerators are overflowing with kimchi, pickles, anchovies, and prepared foods, all fresh and perfectly packaged lining the shelves. It’s hard not to buy everything as you wander the aisles of all of these markets.
This area is also home to a wide array of Korean-owned restaurants serving classic and lesser known dishes, from the ever popular Korean BBQ to more simple hits like blood sausage or hangover soup.
Our first meal stop was at JeunJu Korean Restaurant. The business has been family-owned for the last 23 years, and in its current location in Murray Hill for the last 8 years. The original location was in Flushing until that landlord sold the building and land to a real estate developer to build condos, according to owner Jung Kyung San.
Lee recalls walking into JeunJu when she was younger and seeing women sitting at tables folding dumplings. When we walked in, the servers had a high pile of garlic cloves they were peeling by hand. We sat and ordered, and an array of banchan (small side dishes included at every Korean meal) along with steamed dumplings and the perilla sujebi, a traditional soup consisting of hand torn noodles and perilla leaves. The dumplings were juicy and tender, the noodles chewy, and the banchan was the perfect accompaniment to it all.
When you think of Korean cuisine, most minds immediately run to BBQ, and the area is not lacking in these restaurants. The day before our visit, Pete Wells, the food critic for the New York Times, had just put out his list of the 100 Best Restaurants in New York City, and our next stop listed as number 81: Mapo Korean BBQ.
This restaurant is known for their kalbi short ribs, and we ordered the short ribs lunch special. The BBQ is typically followed by naengmyun, or cold noodles. The combination of hot and cold is something most Westerners may not be used to, however, as Lee explained, the cold noodles are meant to counteract the fattiness of the meat and almost serve like a palate cleanser.
Further down the road is Tong Sam Gyup Goo Yi, which serves cold noodles in a bowl made of ice and the bbq is grilled tableside on a sottukung, a curved cast-iron grill plate that looks like the lid of a cauldron. Another long-standing staple in the community, this restaurant’s specialty is pork belly.
Our next stop, not far from Tong Sam Gyup YI, was Nolbu Nolbu, known for gimbap. Gimbap, is a dish made from cooked rice rolled with vegetables, meats, and pickled vegetables in gim (seaweed). It’s a classic on-the-go dish commonly eaten on picnics or packed for kids’ school lunches. With over 30 kinds of gimbap on the menu, it’s hard to make a choice, but I truly don’t think you can go wrong with any (we split the burdock). They’re all made to order and the spot has been around for over 20 years, established in 1998.
Our last spot was GooGong Tan, back over in Murray Hill. Lee has been coming to this spot with her friends for years, gathering for drinks and gossip. She ordered us somaek, which is a cocktail made of about 30% soju and 70% beer that you mix yourself at the table. The name itself is a mashup of the Korean names for soju and beer (known as maekju). We also got ganjang suyuk, pork belly that had been boiled in a BBQ soy sauce before being thinly sliced and grilled. Drinking is a big part of Korean culture and BBQ, and eating is also a big part of drinking. You’re never really going to just go and sit somewhere and only drink; you’re gonna want to order some snacks at the very least.
There’s so many places to explore in this part of the city and in only one afternoon you really can’t do much. Come back for the fried chicken at Mad For Chicken or Yetnal Tongdak, the juk at Bonjuk, or the gukbap (beef and cabbage soup with rice) at Parksanbal.
All of the places mentioned in this story are in this Google Map, which you can save to your phone.