By Nadine Kam
I’m not one who needs a pop-culture reference to spark a culinary expedition, but I understand the impulse. Films like “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” each left me hungry for nigiri sushi and Chinese food, respectively. Alas, in those cases, similar cuisine was nowhere to be found on Oahu at that time. (Great sushi bars have since materialized.)
When traveling, K-pop stars inevitably start missing a taste of home, and that’s how I ended up following in their footsteps to a couple of restaurants in town for some “When Harry Met Sally”-style, “I’ll have what he’s having moment.”
That’s how I ended up at Seoul Jung restaurant, not exactly a top-of-mind Korean restaurant for locals because of its hidden status, tucked away on the second floor of the Waikiki Resort Hotel, and at New Shilawon Korean restaurant, where I was also eager to try a holiday special of $9.99 samgyetang, kalbi soup or kalbi and vegetable soup.
BTS was here on the Big Island and Oahu in spring 2017 for the season 2 filming of their annual summer vacation package “Bon Voyage.” Some places they showed up included Ken’s House of Pancakes in Hilo, and Teddy’s Bigger Burgers in Haleiwa.
They split up three ways for dinner one night, but two of the groups including R.M. (Kim Nam-joon), J-Hope (Jung Ho-seok), Park Jimin, Jeon Jung-kook and Jin (Kim Seok-jin) ended up at Mikawon, where one wall has become a shrine to BTS, with guests adding their artwork memorializing their visit to the restaurant.
Meanwhile, Sugar (Min Yoon-gi) and V (Kim Tae-hyung) ended up at Seoul Jung, where I was able to sample the mul naengmyeon (cold noodle soup) and doenjang jigae (soy bean paste stew) that nearly drove them to tears after being away from Korean food for two weeks.
As soon as I was seated at Seoul Jung, I asked the wait staff if they remembered BTS, and they did! From there I had 100 questions like, “Were they cute? Were they funny? Did you talk to them?” Only to find Suga and V left no strong impression. I was told they were quiet and polite, sitting in the very back of the restaurant in a room with more privacy than in the main dining room.
People are not usually seated there unless the main dining room is full. That’s when I was told about Japanese visitors who show up with screenshots in hand and, matching up the artwork on the walls, beg to sit in the same seats Suga and V occupied. I was fine with sitting in one of the booths outside that room.
The restaurant caters to the Korean palate, with flavors lighter and more refined than local-style Korean. In fact, throughout their visit and sampling local food, the BTS members’ reaction to most local food was that it is extremely salty.
In contrast, Suga said Seoul Jung’s food “hit the spot,” and the soy bean stew ($16.95) reminded him of his mom’s cooking. Their smiles, tears and quiet reverie as they emptied their bowls said a lot.
The mul naengmyeon ($15.50), or cold noodle soup, was refreshing. The buckwheat noodles were topped with slices of apple and half a boiled egg, in a broth of beef and vegetables, brightened with vinegar and clear soda. It’s served with extra vinegar for those who crave more of the sourness associated with authentic Korean fare.
I could taste why Suga appreciated the doenjang jigae ($16.95). It had the flavor of home, mild and comforting, a simple soybean paste, tofu, beef and vegetable stew that one could eat every day without tiring of it.
Because no Korean meal feels complete without meat, I added on the L.A.-style grilled, sliced kalbi ($28.95), so succulent and tender it was easily the highlight of the meal. Wang-style kalbi on the bone ($28.95) is also available, but I was in a lazy, no-fuss mood, so having the shortribs finished and cut in the kitchen was fine with me. Both arrive on a sizzling platter.
If you’re the grill-it-yourself type, you can always order assorted meats for a customized yakiniku experience. Selections range from kalbi and sirloin ($26.75 each), to black pork belly ($23.95), beef tongue ($24.75) and beef tripe ($25.95).
EXO also showed up Nov. 27 to Dec. 1, 2018 for filming and photo shoots, and in addition to being spotted at Champs Sports Bar in Kaimuki and the Haleiwa McDonald’s, showed up for dinner their last night in town at New Shilawon restaurant, where they enjoyed kalbi jjim ($26.95), kim chee jeon ($16.99), fish roe stew ($19.95) and yakiniku.
A few weeks later I was there to try the restaurant’s lunch special (through Dec. 22) of ginseng chicken soup, but yakiniku sounds good to me, so as a meat eater, I’ll probably revisit soon. The banchan and food are great here, and so is the staff.
The yakiniku is $29.95 or $34.95 per person (minimum two people) for all-you-can-eat, lunch or dinner. For $29.95 15.99 for children ages 5 to 10), meat options are pork belly, beef brisket, BBQ chicken, bulgogi and spicy pork. For $34.95 the selectors is greater: ribeye, beef tongue, beef brisket, cubed beef flank, pork belly, kalbi, bulgogi, BBQ chicken and spicy pork. Typical all-you-can eat rules are in effect, like a two-hour time limit, $3 per plate fee for leftovers and no take-out.
IF YOU WANT TO GO:
Mikawon Korean Restaurant: 2310 Kuhio Ave. Call 808.924.3277
New Shilawon Korean Restaurant: 747 Amana St. Call 808.944.8700
Seoul Jung: Waikiki Resort Hotel, 2460 Koa Ave. Call 808.921.8620