Recently, curiosity, frugality, and an editor sent me off through the cold in search of Korean food in the northeastern suburb of Columbia Heights – to a place called Dong Yang. There’s not much that’s worth searching for this time of year. It’s best to conserve energy and wait for better times rather than wander around out there in the freezing wastes.
The first thing one notices is that the décor in Dong Yang is, well, lacking. But that’s not much the point. This gem just off Central Avenue – which, it bears noting, is possibly the most bewildering, multicultural (and unassuming) eating byway in Minnesota — is actually a Korean grocer and, in the very rear of place next to the frozen mackerel, also a small, extra-casual restaurant. “Cafeteria” might be more to the point.
On a recent visit the satellite TV was off and the most interesting decoration was a notice from an adopted Korean immigrant searching for a former, ’60s-era, Seoul orphanage playmate. Amazing. Cultural voyeurism aside, the main attraction here is far and away the home-style Korean dishes prepared by a small team of mothers and grandmothers.
It’s probably cliché at this point to prattle on about comfort food and the dishes our mothers made when we were young – Lord knows neither my mother nor grandmother are Korean – but how can you not sense a little maternal affection when you order your meal from a tiny, smiling, elderly Korean woman who’s beaming with pride? I’ve never been 100% confident at Dong Yang that the woman behind the counter has understood my order, but the happiness or pity on her face makes me not worry too much.
Until recently, the menu at Dong Yang was a series of brightly colored sheets of construction paper taped above the ordering window. The Korean on these signs was likely clear and descriptive, but the English was not. On my first visit, I was surprised to find that my short ribs and vegetable soup were not two separate beasts but a single boiled one. Serves me right. Thankfully, a well-lit, fully bilingual menu has taken the place of the old tag-board signs. Be warned that the portions, like the dishes, are hearty. Regardless of your plans, this will be the biggest and most fermented meal you eat all day.
Most dishes come with banchan, a set of five or six cold side dishes, forever rotating. You can count on honest-to-goodness, regular Napa cabbage kimchi (not much like the $10-a-jar co-op substitute), often daikon kimchi, boiled seaweed, and all sorts of other tasty vittles. Recent selections have included potatoes with a light chili and sesame oil, a small green salad, cold tofu noodles with sesame oil, and other creatures. You’re free to nibble and mix the banchan with your main dish. You can certainly be more adventurous and try the gimbap, a Korean take on sushi, or give in to curiosity and order the seafood pancake (it’s real, and apparently pretty popular), but for the uninitiated or the more Minnesotan palates or really, anyone, bulletproof choices include the hot bibimbap and the grilled beef short ribs, galbi.
Bibimbap is rice, seasoned veggies, sometimes a meat (marinated beef, most recently), all with an over-easy fried egg thrown on top, and here’s the kicker, served in a blazing hot stone bowl (about $10). This may not come as a revelation to people who regularly eat Korean food, Korean-Americans not excepted, but it floored me. You mix the dish yourself while it gets crispy and golden all up in that hot bowl. While you’re eating, the stone bowl somehow continues to produce delicate flakes of sticky, crunchy rice. The galbi is served on a plate of seared onions, once again in a crazy-hot dish, but in an iron skillet this time instead of a stone bowl ($13). The pork is tender, well-marinated, terribly juicy, and covered with a sesame seed and oil drizzle. Hot, tasty magic.
Food like this can steel you for the coming months. It’s true, we’ve entered the long desolate steppe of the Minnesota winter. There is no prospect of change in the weather or the politics. When spring comes, if it ever does, you’ll have forgotten what it feels like to hope or walk around outside in short sleeves. With such a dim, white-out-blurred horizon, the wisest thing any of us can do is to eat hearty, shy not from the BBQ grilled ribs and fermented veggies, and, whenever possible, order dishes that arrive in dangerously hot stone bowls.
BEST BET: The hot bibimbap is always good, as are the grilled short ribs. Gimbap, a sort of Korean sushi, and seafood pancakes may suit the tastes of more adventurous eaters.
Dong Yang Oriental Food [no website]
735 45th Ave NE
Minneapolis, MN 55421
OWNER: Tae Yang
Mon-Sat 10am-8pm (last orders taken at 7:30pm)
Sun 10am-6pm (last orders taken at 5:30pm)
BAR: No alcohol
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: No / No
ENTREE RANGE: $6-14