Dong-A Style

“Unlike almost every other food culture, the Koreans seem to have f****ed up their food the least.” – Anthony Bourdain

Who's that handsome guy?

Who’s that handsome guy?

Well said, Tony. It’s true. It would seem that nothing is sacred in the world of food once it hits our shores. Our so-called “Chinese” cuisine has birthed things as perverse as egg rolls and fortune cookies. Tim Ferris (another of my spirit animals) points out in The 4 Hour Chef that chains in China have had big success selling “California beef noodles.” You know the Japanese were probably scratching their heads at “California rolls.” We’ve even managed to Americanize something as humble as traditional Mexican food. Was the world really made a better place by the invention of the chimichanga?

Crouching Kimchi, Hidden Rice

Crouching Kimchi, Hidden Rice

Korean food is served in America without alteration. They have not dumbed down their complex, spicy flavor profiles for our vulgar palates. Kimchi, their famous fermented cabbage? Sure. Drink-able sweet potato? Why not. Beef intestine stew? It’s all there. If you’ve eaten Korean food in this country, it’s very likely you would find the same things in any Korean home. And if you haven’t ever eaten it, you’re about to find out that living near an air force base has its perks.

Meet Anastasia: Native of Seoul, good friend, and hairdresser extraordinaire.

I’m lucky to know Anastasia, and especially lucky that she knows her way around Korean food. As luck would have it, Tinker Air Force Base and its surrounding hamlets (Midwest City, Del City, Moore) which straddle Oklahoma city are a hotbed of Korean cuisine. Anastasia’s favorite place (and now mine) is Dong-A in Moore, a short journey down I-35 from Oklahoma City. The restaurant is located in a strip-center next to an other-worldly Korean grocery store which carries colorful, indecipherable packages of things like squid jerky and cylindrical rice dumplings. The whole things smacks of the kind of authenticity you’d expect from a side-street in Seoul.

Spicy Kimchi Stew

Spicy Kimchi Stew

Together with our friends Louden and Igor, we trekked South for an enormous, unforgettable meal. Anastasia conversed with the restaurant’s Korean owners and got us a seat in the barbecue room. Cordoned off from the larger dining room, this chamber of secrets is like having your own private kitchen for the evening. Each table has a built in grill which allows you to––you guessed it––cook your own food. And by food (and this is the best part), I mean meat.

A meal for 4???

A meal for 4???

We had only a small sampling of what the menu has to offer, but the three meat dishes alone probably could have fed the whole Romney family, sister-wives included. Before our beef-stravaganza we had pork belly, the fatty king of all the meats. Brought to the table raw and seared on our personal grill with garlic and a menagerie of side-dishes, the sweet meat allowed us to taste the whole spectrum of Korean flavors. You could try the meat on its own, or add a little bite of spicy vinegar lettuce. Or maybe you’d prefer kimchi, bean sprouts, or a little dip into sesame oil and chili paste. The whole idea is to mix and match and try new combinations, all of which are add new strong flavors and textures.

Pork

Step 1

2

Step 2

Following on the heels of the pork was Bulgogi, Korea’s quintessential marinated beef. Sweet and rich like teriyaki, the beef was nicely complimented by the salty sesame and the tang of kimchi.

Bulgogi. A little rare for my taste.

Bulgogi. A little rare for my taste.

Finally there was Galbi: one beef to rule them all. These are the short ribs, bone in, which allow you to gleefully tear at the meat with your hands (that is, if you enjoy eating like a savage as much as I do). Marinated in soy before we grilled it, this was definitely the meat with the most flavor, even if eating it required a little more fortitude.

She's a beef stylist too.

Watch out, she uses scissors for more than styling your hair.

To say Korean food is “different” is a massive understatement. I mean, where else do you get to use scissors as a utensil? It is indeed un-f***ed up, offering meat dangling with tasty fat and fermented vegetables pungent and spicy enough to make your hair stand on end. This is not food for wimps. But it is a seriously distinct cuisine, like Vietnamese or Indian, which developed its own way of using ingredients and spices. Dong-A is as good as it gets in the Oklahoma City area, offering a fabulous menu beyond what you grill yourself. Not only that, the portions are huge, and everything comes with the obligatory Korean side dishes, all for very reasonable prices (think <;$10 per person).

So if you’re not squeamish about raw meat (why are you reading this?) and you want to try something totally, unapologetically unique, then take the drive down to Moore. I promise there’s nothing else like it.

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Dong-A is open Tuesday-Sunday for Lunch and Dinner.

Dong A Korean Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Prairie Sushi

I admit, at this point, that Japanese food is kind of old hat. You know when any concept has been made into a nationwide chain (Benihana, in this instance), it’s lost that quaint quality of being truly foreign. Now I’m not going to stay on my soapbox for long, because I’ve never actually been to a Benihana. But I have an innate suspicion of huge corporate chains, probably stemming from a traumatic Chili’s experience. I reserve a special animosity for those that try to sell themselves as representing any kind of foreign cuisine. Do you think Olive Garden bears a passing resemblance to anything that really exists in Italy?

Sushi bars, Japanese steakhouses, and teppanyaki grills are scattered around just about every big American city now, but not all of them owe their success to the increasing popularity of chains. Japanese food has a distinct style all its own, no more similar to Chinese or Vietnamese than it is to French. As luck would have it, Oklahoma’s only Japanese restaurants are locally owned. So I decided it was high time to write about this unique cuisine, which is really too important to be overlooked.

The quintessential Japanese restaurant in the city has to be Musashi’s. They cover all of the bases: teppanyaki, sushi, even the robata grill. What’s teppanyaki? Why, it’s the big table that doubles as a flat-top grill! You’ve seen it. I myself have spent many a birthday watching the show where the guy sets the onions on fire and flips an egg into his hat. If you feel like you’ve been there done that, where this place really shines is a little alcove of the restaurant called “The Fire Room.” It’s an open-kitchen bar/grill/patio with a menu separate from the rest of the restaurant. While the main dining room has a Kill Bill vol. 1 vibe, this area is a little more fun and casual, the walls adorned with cases of sake and little wooden “boats” in which sushi is served. Eating here again, I found myself smiling at just how different the food is from anything else you can find in the city.

The Fire Room

I’ll start with what isn’t so exclusive to this place, which is the sushi. Musashi’s is right across the street from (and shares a lot of its menu with) its sister restaurant, Sushi Neko. Can you guess what they specialize in? Now I know what you’re thinking: This can’t be! Sushi in Oklahoma? Before you coastal dwellers recoil in terror, I can tell you I’ve had it on a good many occasions and it’s never made me sick. Thanks to fossil fuels and modern refrigeration, we can have our fish shipped in from the same body of water you get it from, and with the illusion of being just as fresh.

On this particular occasion I had the yellowtail sashimi. Those who have had sushi will understand how hard it is to describe to anyone who hasn’t. All I can say is this was some of the best I’ve had (and I’ve had quite a bit at my university in Norman, OK, scary as that may be). It’s fatty, soft, without any of the rubbery briny-ness you might expect from raw fish, and sublime with a dab of soy sauce and wasabi.

Yellowtail

The fire room specializes in small plates, or what they call “Japanese Tapas,” so in addition to the sushi, my mom and I shared some edamame and “Lobster Shooters.” Edamame are whole steamed soybeans, salted, healthy (high protein, folks!), and even a little fun as you pop the beans out of their pods.

Edamame

Lobster Shooters have a very clever sake-style presentation. Each cup contains a little ball of lobster meat, arrayed neatly around a spicy coconut and curry sauce. Pour the sauce in, then eat each cupful as the name implies: bottoms up!

Shot of Lobster, anyone?

But the crowning dish of this meal, the reason for coming back, was the Black Cod: a buttery, soft white fish that falls apart beneath your fork, its crispy skin charred and caramelized on the robata grill. It’s sweet and rich, without even a hint of salt; about as far from fishy as you can get, standing in stark contrast to the light, chilled sashimi; the fish equivalent of a good seared foie gras.

The Codfather

There’s a lot to The Fire Room I haven’t tried and wouldn’t have nearly enough space to mention here. If you want to have some fun with your food, try “The Rock.” No, not the bemuscled movie star with a facial expression deficiency, but a literal, scalding hot rock brought to the table, on which you can cook your own little sizzling strips of raw meat. The sushi menu is very extensive (keep in mind they can fill a boat with it!) and they have all sorts of grilled goodies to blacken on the robata grill. It’s a fast and reasonably priced place, and perfect if you’re into the tapas-style sampling of many small dishes. Japanese food is truly unique amongst Asian foods, and deserves, chains or not, to be revered in a league of its own.

*Musashi’s is open for lunch Tuesday-Saturday, and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.

Musashi's Japanese Steakhouse on Urbanspoon