Jin Men3212 Fulton Ave.
Korean flavors seem to be popping up all over the place these days, whether in tacos (such as the ones served at Tako Korean BBQ at 3030 T Street) or in the many outputs by New York-based chef David Chang.
Chang’s book Momofuku was one of my first introductions to the cuisine, despite years of lurking around Asian markets buying questionable condiments. Finally, I decided I’d better learn more about Korean food this year.
Then, a friend who was born in Korea told me about Jin Men, a restaurant that bills its itself as Chinese but actually specializes in Korean-Chinese (hwagyo) food.
Jin Men, which shares a building with the suspiciously dark Oli Massage, was taken over by cousins of the original owners last year.
Here, the interior is bright and spotless, and the menu lists the usual Chinese fare—fried wontons, spring rolls and kung pao chicken—but my friends and I came specifically for the Korean specialties.
The most popular of such is the ja jang myun, described as “black bean paste noodle.” Initially, I thought this meant the noodles were made from beans, but the thick chewy noodles are actually wheat based, and the sauce is made of black-soybean paste. Ja jang myun is based on the Chinese dish zhajiangmian (fried noodles with sauce) and is one of the “national foods” of South Korea.
Jin Men’s rendition is made with little squares of chewy pork and tiny shrimp mixed with lots of sweet sautéed onions and slightly salty bean paste. We also tried a blander vegetarian version and the spicy noodles, which were fairly fiery. This addictive dish is served in a bowl just the right size to keep all to yourself. It may be one of my new favorite comfort foods.
We also ordered the jambong, a spicy seafood soup with the nose-searing fragrance of kimchi that’s served with the same toothy noodles as the ja jang myun. The dish’s whole mussels and small shrimp were perfectly fresh and tender, but the bits of calamari were unfortunately eraserish. Still, it was the dish that most surprised—I usually have low expectations for most inexpensive seafood soups. But this one was flavorful, nicely spiked with chili and perfect for curing a cold.
Popular dishes are highlighted on the menu. Of those, we tried both the deep-fried sweet-and-sour beef and deep-fried chicken with garlic sauce. Both were crisply battered and fried without a trace of grease, although the beef was a bit tough.The sweet-and-sour sauce was sweet but, thankfully, not gloppy, and had plenty of al dente vegetables, although—unfortunately—also canned pineapple.
The garlic chicken sauce was light and sweet, without any raw garlic flavor. Despite the whole chilies on the plate, the tender chicken was just a bit spicy. It disappeared quickly.
The Chinese-style dishes we tried included mu shu chicken, which had very tender but far too few pancakes and a just-OK filling. The vegetable fried rice was fine but “ho-hum,” as a friend put it. Much better was the Hot Spicy Bean Curd—a large portion of silky tofu in a zingy sauce with peas and carrots (make sure to order rice, which isn’t an automatic add-on to your meal).
The glazed sweet potatoes, listed under desserts on the menu, were a revelation of caramelized white Asian yams sprinkled with sesame seeds, and they reminded me of pie filling. A bit pricey at $7, but very tasty.
An order of beer came with a small plate of unsalted roasted peanuts—a nice touch. One of the meals included kimchi made of orange-red pickled daikon (or, perhaps, turnips). Know that leftovers will make your fridge very fragrant.