As hair-pullingly stressful at times as the 3 months I spent last fall working on the upcoming Food Lover’s Guide to Denver/Boulder got, the jaunts I took to the de facto Koreatown (& everything-else-town) that is Aurora never ceased to rejuvenate me—never failed to be bright spots, to remind me why I became a food writer in the 1st place. Without pooh-poohing the job’s posher perks—& I’ve done my fair share of swanning around glamorous soirées where foie gras & caviar are mine for the digging in—the academic in me has always been far more excited by opportunities to explore & research & discover & learn on the down low. And much as I love those places where everybody knows my name & feeds me silly, the anthrophobe in me (see: the academic in me) really loves the ones where nobody does—& still feeds me silly.
This afternoon, the Director & I met our champion-eater pal Joe N. for lunch at a place that, it turned out, was closed for lunch, so wound up instead at nearby Cafe Sky, a borderline fast-food Korean joint but with table service & booze. (Oh, what a kick the adorable middle-aged gent who appears to run the place got out of my ordering a bottle of soju. “You’ve never had?” he asked incredulously, implying that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. “I’ve had,” I assured him. He laughed.)
We started with my beloved ddeokbokki, glutinous-rice sticks stirfried in a spicy-sweet gochujang-based sauce. I can’t entirely explain my fondness for these sticky, chewy, starchy cylinders, except to say that they’re the barely-savory answer to Sunkist Fruit Gems, or maybe edible Play-Doh. Here, the ratio of cabbage to rice cake was a bit too high for my taste, but the apparently somewhat common addition of a hard-boiled egg, which we chopped up & mixed in, proved fascinating.
I got lots more rice cake, sliced this time, in a bowl of dukmandu guk, a light, savory, brothy soup also chock-full of bits of scrambled egg, scallions, mushrooms, & seaweed, plus a little sliced beef & maybe 4 or 5 pork dumplings. I wouldn’t bet an enormous amount of dough on the possibility that the latter were homemade—they seemed too uniform in construction for that—but either way, they were tender & tasty enough, & the contents of the bowl went down easy as a whole.
The Director’s bibimbap
& Joe’s jap chae (glass noodles)
were fine; not memorable, but certainly worth their rock-bottom prices.
As long as we were in the neighborhood, I had to hit up 2 adjacent strip-mall holes in the wall I came to adore last fall—Dah Won Rice Cake & Paris Baguette, likewise owned by the sweetest folks—not to wax reverse racist, but are Koreans just nicer & better adjusted than the rest of us?
The former, as the name indicates, is entirely devoted to glutinous-rice products of all types, colors & flavors. I’m a fan especially of the mochi-like morsels covered in green-bean powder for their subtle salty-sweet chew &, now, of this,
which is reminiscent of angel-food cake in texture, albeit stickier—& much less sweet than you might expect, layered with mango & coated in red-bean powder. In fact it’s not what I’d call sweet at all—just airily refreshing.
The latter, despite the name, is not a traditional French boulangerie; I’ve never even caught sight of the eponymous loaves on the tiny retail floor. Instead the mom & pop bakers turn out various cookies, cake by the slice &, especially, stuffed buns both savory & sweet. The vegetable bun (top), for instance, contains chopped cooked egg, onion, cabbage & peppers; the version at bottom is filled with a dense, marzipan-like sweet-potato paste.
Encased in fried sweet rolls not unlike doughnuts, they’re, in a word, killer.