I am a Korean foodie.
It all began five years ago when I had my first taste of kimchi, soonduboo and bulgogi at Woojeon in Edison. Then, I was off to South Korea to teach English.
Earlier this year, I returned to The Land of the Morning Calm, arriving in Busan, the second largest city in the country. There, my love of all foods Korean was increased. Never did I tire of the sheer amount of foods that are pickled and fermented, the kaleidoscope of sea creatures of every size and shape used in dishes, the seemingly simple recipes creating flavors my palette has never experienced before.
My favorite part: the banchan. Banchan, or side dishes, are a staple to any good Korean meal. They can range from some pickled radishes and kimchi (fermented cabbage), a bowl of rice, to a cornucopia of little bowls filled with things like cucumbers with sesame seeds and oil, chunks of tofu with scallion and soy sauce, bean sprouts, squid...
Can you tell I'm in love with variety?
So, it was with much excitement that I discovered J. Hinari, listed as a "Japanese-Korean Restaurant", was opening next to Sirin Thai on Pine Street. Finally, I wouldn't have to drive to enjoy Bibimbap, I could walk there!
I walked into the clean, simple interior of the restaurant at around 1 p.m. While other restaurants were serving customers, J. Hinari, whose sister location is in Springfield, was nearly empty. This was in sharp relief to a previous night my girlfriend and I had visited the place two weeks before, where an overworked waitress tried to fulfill the orders of a nearly packed room.
The waiter on my second visit, a young and pleasant man, was quick to get a glass of water and place my order. I chose Dolsot Bibimbap, perhaps one of the most common Korean meals out there. A bowl is filled with white rice, various veggies, maybe some meat and then topped with an egg. The "dolsot," or stone pot, means it's heated up first and is sizzling when it comes to your table.
Usually, after placing my order, the waiter would return with my beloved banchan. The amount has varied from place-to-place. Sometimes it's three, other times, five or more.
The waiter returned with the standard Japanese meal sides–miso soup and a bowl of boring iceberg lettuce with some ginger salad dressing. But, I didn't order Japanese, I ordered Korean. Where's the banchan?
I had to ask for kimchi. The most ubiquitous, commonplace food in Korea next to rice, and I had to ask for it. This left a sour taste in my mouth.
Thankfully, that sour taste was quickly replaced by one of pleasure, as J. Hinari's kimchi is very good. Just crunchy enough, just salty enough, just spicy and pungent enough. While Korean food in the States has not fallen prey to Americanization as much as perhaps other Asian cuisines, there has been a few restaurants that have seemed to think they should tone their fermented cabbage down for western palettes.
The waiter, still smiling, asked if I wanted more kimchi. Is the sky blue (on this day, it was)?
Then came by Dolsot Bibimbap, accompanied by a side of spicy red sauce, another common ingredient. I applied liberally, mixed with fervor, took a bite and– man, that's good. The veggies–shredded carrots, zucchini, onions, mushrooms, watercress along with a generous portion of beef merged with the bland, soft, sticky rice and the sweet and spicy sauce. The egg, usually whole and served cooked or raw on top, was scrambled and added to the mix as another main ingredient. Different, but not at all off-putting.
The kimchi, though I had to ask for it, came with the meal. At $10.95 for a lunch special, it was not the cheapest Dolsot Bibimbap I've had, but not the most expensive.
Overall, I left J. Hinari torn. It seems almost ignorant or insulting to not include banchan, as if the owners might think customers would not notice it or assume most of them would order the Japanese food anyway. Yet, what little Korean options they do have have been so well-prepared, so tasty, I can't help but think I will be back. But, please, do consider adding a few banchan to my meal next time. It's the Korean thing to do.