This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine . To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
I have the Catholic Church and Lent to blame for the glistening chunk of mackerel between my chopsticks. I have Yeon Hee Chung, owner and chef of Charim Korean Restaurant , to thank for making it palatable.
See, I usually avoid mackerel, as it is a slimy ocean omnivore that yields an oily, uber-fishy flavor. But one of my planned visits to Charim fell on a Friday during the Lenten season. My pious dining partner not only insisted on non-meat options but also demanded the mackerel as a kind of ironic salute to an antiquated anti-Catholic slur.
So here I am, staring at a plate of godeung-uh jorim ($15), in a beige-walled little restaurant slotted into the mini-strip mall on Oechsli Avenue. And, happily, I’m finding that I like it. The mackerel tastes like mackerel, though it’s braised to delicate tenderness. Its real advantage lies in the braising liquid, a kind of super-funky, chili-flecked fish sauce with Korean chili paste. The flavors seep into a huge mound of braised daikon radish chunks and sliced onions, with crisp scallion shoots and jalapeño slices that add hot freshness.
Being far from a practicing Catholic myself, I fill my side of the table with meat, making sure to include an order of Charim wings ($6), the restaurant’s addition to the Korean fried-chicken universe. Unlike the breaded, buttermilk-soaked Southern-style birds, a thin batter that’s slowly and carefully fried to a delicate crispness gives Korean chicken its crunch. The Charim wings are much better than the hot wings ($6) I ordered on a previous visit, when a bottled-tasting hot sauce made the wings’ skin disintegrate. The plain wings are lightly coated with soy sauce and sesame seeds, letting the crackly dermis remain while coating the moist meat in a layer of salty-sour Asian flavor. For this meal, I also choose a familiar Korean favorite, kalbi ($18). The marinated beef short rib is grilled and thinly sliced, and the wonderful surprise of sliced portobello mushrooms beneath the rib pieces offers an additional bit of beefiness to an already hefty plate.
Chef Chung describes her kitchen crew as “two staff, all ladies, no experience,” but I’m finding plenty of pleasantly surprising experiences at Charim. While the restaurant offers beer and wine, I opt for hot tea. My server suggests “corn tea,” a brew made from roasted corn kernels that has a pleasant nutty taste. Instead of the execrable excuse for “fried rice” offered at many Asian places as an alternative to white rice, Charim’s brown rice is a sweet, slightly sticky mix of brown and black grains that tastes a little like caramel. And I haven’t even mentioned the banchan.
Banchan are part of virtually every Korean meal, kind of a cross between tapas, condiments and those little “gifts” that you often get at sushi bars. Charim’s banchan include lightly boiled spinach speckled with sesame seeds, cucumbers with vinegar and chiles, boiled peanuts with soy sauce and, of course, kimchee, Korea’s fiery fermented cabbage. I eat the banchan by themselves but sometimes mix a bit of kimchee into a dish for some extra heat, as I do with a dish of classic bibim bap ($13). Shreds of beef, carrots, spinach, cucumber and bean sprouts sit atop of a bed of rice under a glistening raw egg, ready to be stirred into a sizzling-hot stone bowl along with however much Korean chili paste you desire. (That’s where the extra kimchee comes in, because I like to crank it to 11.) The dish can be vegetarian, but I like the meaty bits in mine. Japchae ($13) is a delicious mixture of Gummi-worm-esque noodles, spinach, carrots, onions and meaty shiitake mushrooms.
My dining partner insists I thank the Catholic Church for one of my favorite Charim surprises, golbangy ($10). We order it because it has whelks, or sea snails, mixed with vegetables and sounds like something we’ll end up daring each other to eat. Instead, we fight over the scraps of a sweet, sour, salty and hot salad that has almost as many textures as flavors, from the snap of sliced carrots to the squish of salty sea snail.
I look forward to what else I will discover at Charim, my visits so far not venturing toward the soft tofu soup or a plate of pork neck bones. Thanks in part to the pope, I have a renewed spirit to range beyond my food boundaries. Although, as good as Charim’s version may be, I’ll probably leave the mackerel for next Lent.
Photos: Courtesy Louisville Magazine / John Nation