If you watched Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown series premiere last week, you got a whirlwind glimpse into the food culture in South Korea. Food and alcohol are important in many countries, but in Korea, it’s a critical nexus for family, celebrations, traditions, and good health. When we moved to Charlotte from New York, one of the ancillary things on my mind was whether there were Korean restaurants here – I imagined a sea of eateries, waiting to be discovered.
These dreams came to an abrupt halt when I learned that a tridactyl mammal could easily count the options on one hand. In addition, the Korean restaurants here exist in weird juxtaposed locations, like at the back of grocery stores and in repurposed fast food buildings:
(1) PePeRo (10920 Monroe Rd in Matthews) is a Korean grocery store with a restaurant in the back. (PSA: Don’t show up to PePeRo on a Tuesday expecting to get your Korean food fix, they’re closed.)
(2) China Wing (808 E. Arrowood Rd off of South Blvd) is a Korean/Chinese hybrid in a former Long John Silver’s. (PSA: Go to PePeRo on Sundays, China Wing is closed.)
(3) Super G Mart, the “United Nations of Grocery Stores” and also where G’s shop, is at 7323 E. Independence Blvd and has a Korean food counter in the “food court” area on the right side of the gigantic store. (PSA: G Mart is open 7 days a week, but the Korean food counter may not be. I was too scared to ask and also, asking for an extra napkin took priority.)
As uninspiring as these spots sound, they are each run by Koreans, and they offer the traditional crowd-pleasers such as bulgogi (barbequed marinated beef), bibimbop (rice with an assortment of vegetables and beef), and japchae (sweet potato starch noodles stir fried with vegetables and beef).
The menu at Super G is fairly limited, but PePero and China Wing offer an adequate amount of variety. The biggest let down for me is not where they’re housed or what they offer, it’s that none of these establishments serve alcohol. It’s tragic and unpatriotic. So, to enjoy a proper Korean meal, Anthony Bourdain style, I suggest getting take out and supplementing with your own beverages.
Recently, I had lunch with a friend at PePeRo and on this day, we didn’t want to be those moms who get sloshed at lunch, so we dined in. We ordered the galbi (barbequed, marinated short ribs), yukaejang (spicy beef and vegetable soup), and japchae filled steamed buns. It was all delicious, as were the banchan (small plates of sides) that come with every meal, which included the staple side of kimchi (fermented cabbage).
Every meal I’ve had at PePeRo has been a win, but service can get spotty sometimes. Luckily, there’s a built in service call button at each table that’s completely acceptable to use when you need the waitress. Every restaurant should have one of these.
Korean food is arguably not as mainstream as its Japanese, Chinese, and Thai counterparts. Korean chefs and restauranteurs haven’t gotten on board to alter the cuisine in order to please the masses. The names of the dishes are difficult to pronounce, deciphering what the ingredients are in a dish can be difficult without some indigenous help, and there really is little marketing of the food – but the flavors are delicious and worth trying.
Thankfully, the tide is turning and even non Korean chefs are starting to use Korean ingredients on the menu more and more.
Once I had a shrimp and grits with kimchi dish (not currently on the menu) at Halcyon that transcended everything I’d eaten in Charlotte and it’s something I still pine for. The Korean Beef plate at Good Food on Montford is also transcendental worthy and one that I’ve tried to duplicate at home with little success.
Go try one of the Korean restaurants in Charlotte, I know you can do it and you’ll be better for it. As demand for Korean food increases in Charlotte, I hope we can graduate to a more respectable number of restaurants that adequately represents our diverse and adventurous community.
If you’re not sure what to order, ask the staff, they’re generally very patient and informative. Or, you can tweet me @gihallmark and I can give you some real time suggestions.