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Sunday, Jan. 27, 2002


The genuine Korea Town article

Times are changing in Korea Town. Those couple of kimchi-scented blocks just north of Kabukicho are still the best place in the city to find home-style cooking as spiced up as you'd get on the Korean Peninsula. But, slowly, the inexorable process of gentrification is under way.

We're not saying the neighborhood has gone to the dogs -- that would give the wrong idea in several different ways (though we are reliably informed of a few places inside Kabukicho that do specialize in canine cuisine). It's just that the whole restaurant scene along Shokuan-dori is getting too popular by far.

These days, just about the last of the original, first-generation eateries left on Shokuan-dori is the good old Kankoku Shokudo. It doesn't serve the finest Korean food in town -- far from it, in fact. But there are some evenings (and lunchtimes and early mornings, too) when you just want to slum it, and you couldn't come to a better place.

Truth in advertising: The "Korean Diner" certainly lives down to its generic-sounding name. That simple facade hides a cozy room just large enough to hold a couple of basic tables plus an L-shaped counter. They've also squeezed in a row of stools by the door so you can rest your legs as you wait (as inevitably you do at peak hours). A large fridge stuffed with vegetables and kimchi pickles has a television balanced on top, its flickering images playing constantly, though they keep the volume turned down.

The overall effect is as basic and genial as a well-scuffed izakaya. The walls are covered in thick swirls of white plaster like some '70s-retro coffee shop, enlivened here and there with tourist-office posters of notable South Korean scenes. A row of tall glass flasks stand on the counter, filled with clear liquor in which ginseng and jujubes have been left to steep.

Peer into the kitchen and you see it is staffed by three matronly women dressed as casually as if working in their kitchens at home. Neither they nor the two young waitresses speak Japanese as their first language. The menu is a mixture of hangul and katakana, with nothing in roman letters. Don't let that deter you: The procedure here is very straightforward.

As soon as you have been assigned a seat, order up a plate of chijimi. These thin, eggy pancakes filled with plenty of green scallions go just right with that first beer. At the same time, ask for a mixed plate of their kimchi pickles. They have five kinds in all: Chinese cabbage; green vegetables, sliced cucumber; cubes of kakuteki daikon; and chanja (salt-preserved clams).

Once the inside of your mouth has begun tingling nicely, you will probably be ready for some makkoli, the thick, white rice wine that is the peninsula's answer to (or prototype for) Japanese doburoku. This is served either by the glass or decanted from larger vats into recycled empty Kirin bottles. It's sweet and smooth, with a faintly musty bouquet that makes it less than appetizing on its own. But paired with the chili-dominated flavors of Korean foods, it soothes your palate and boosts your appetite.

There are plenty of other snacks that make good starters. Chilled tofu; squares of crisp-dried nori seaweed (too oily and MSG-laden for our taste); and various kinds of sashimi, including crab, squid and shellfish. If you really want to get exotic, sample the bright-orange hoyagai (a marine organism known as sea squirt) -- it all tastes very different with hot sauce in place of wasabi.

What distinguishes Kankoku Shokudo from most of its neighbors is how few meat dishes they include on the menu. They do offer various stir-fries featuring miscellaneous internal organs of pig and/or cow. But there's no yakiniku barbecue at all. Instead, the specialty of the house -- and the reason why people are prepared to queue up half an hour or more on the chilly sidewalk -- is their selection of hearty stews.

Hot is definitely the operative word for these supercharged, chili-driven casseroles. Choose from anko (angler fish), crab, fish, kimchi, horumon (those pork organs again) or simple tofu as your main ingredient, to go with a smattering of vegetables and plenty of that angry-red kochujang sauce. By this stage in the meal you will notice that most people have moved on to drinking Jinro soju. It's a potent combination, the clear liquor and that fiery food, one guaranteed to keep the cold Siberian gales at bay.

However, our favorite dish of all at Kankoku Shokudo is not in the slightest bit spicy. Sangetang is a hot pot made from a whole young chicken simmered slowly in a savory broth. It is cooked for such a long that not only does the meat fall from the bone the moment you touch it but the bones themselves dissolve in your mouth.

The not-so-secret ingredient here is ginseng. You will find a couple of the plump, pale yellow roots along with the vegetables in the pot, their distinctively bitter, medicinal flavor permeating not just the soup but the tender flesh of the fowl itself.

At 3,000 yen this is by a long way the most expensive item on the entire menu. But it's a substantial size, sufficient for three people to share, at least. And with such an in-your-face medicinal taste, you just know it's doing you a power of good, strengthening and bolstering your resistance to the rigors of winter.

After this, all you will need is some rice or noodles. The regular bibimbap is tasty, but at this time of year the ishiyaki version is far more appealing. The stone pot arrives sizzling and spitting. You quickly mix in the vegetables, the raw egg and as much of the kochujang hot sauce as you feel the desensitized nerves in your mouth can handle. It's the perfect way to end a meal that is simple, cheap and invigorating.

Kankoku Shokudo 1-12-3 Okubo, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3208-0209
Open:9 a.m.-4 a.m. (Sunday 9 a.m.-2 a.m.)
Nearest stations:Shinjuku (JR/subway/Seibu lines); Shin-Okubo (JR); Higashi-Shinjuku (Oedo Line)
How to get there:From Shinjuku (Studio Alta), walk toward, then past Seibu Shinjuku Station. At the next major thoroughfare (Shokuan-dori), turn right and walk about 200 meters. Kankoku Shokudo is on the left just after the Don Quijotediscount store. From Higashi-Shinjuku Station Exit 1A, turn left and walk down Shokuan-dori; cross at the second set of lights. Kankoku Shokudo is on the right just after the second small side-street.
What works:No-nonsense home cooking at bargain prices
What doesn't:At these prices, don't expect finesse or refined service.
Number of seats:17
Price per head:About 3,000 yen (not including drinks)
Drinks:Beer from 450 yen; makkoli rice wine from 500 yen/glass, 950 yen/bottle; sake from 450 yen; Jinro 900 yen
Credit cards:None accepted (cash only)
Language:Korean/Japanese menu; no English spoken
Reservations:It's first come, first seated, so be prepared to wait on busy weekend nights.

Please send all feedback, comments, complaints and recommendations to the Tokyo Food File by e-mail at foodfile@yahoo.com

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