After dining at enough restaurants in Koreatown, you begin to expect the unexpected. A menu with six distinct types of intestine? Right on. Yogurt-flavored soju served in a hollowed-out pineapple? Order another round.
But after a rather brilliant lunch at Wando Fish BBQ Restaurant, shoehorned into a tiny strip mall at Western and Fourth, you might encounter something that would throw even a K-town vet for a loop: free boxes of fruit. Sitting on the floor next to our table were two entire flats of organic hothouse tomatoes (vine-on), and beside those were three cartons of ripe strawberries, also organic. These were all given as a thank you, handed to us by the server with an affectionate smile -- and it wasn't just our table. Boxes of fruit and vegetables were piled around each table like Christmas presents. As a way to end your meal, it sure beats the hell out of those little peppermint candies.
Wando is named after a South Korean island chain located just off the peninsula's southern tip, an area that's especially well known for its obsession with seafood. The menu at Wando is deceptively simple: about a dozen types of fish -- mackerel, sablefish, black cod, croaker, pollack, eel, etc. -- are served either braised in a thick, sweet-spicy gochujang sauce, cooked in a vegetable-laden stew made with daikon and chunks of tofu, or rubbed with spices and grilled over charcoal flames until the smoke has permeated the fish's flesh.
There are about a dozen dishes of banchan, including some odd ones like shishito peppers tossed with soy and tiny dried sardines, a dish of wilted sesame leaves perked up with a hint of vinegar, and some super-salty strips of pickled squash that pucker your lips when sampled alone but complement the grilled fish perfectly. If you ask, they'll even bring out a little icebox fruit salad made with a handful of field greens sprinkled with blueberries, green grapes, mango, cherry tomatoes and a dressing of lightly fermented pureed pineapple.
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Wando is about as home-style Korean as it gets, and often times the stuff that comes included with the meal -- the little bowls of purple rice and the extra-long-fermented Napa cabbage kimchi -- make as much of an impression as the dishes you actually order. At some point, owner Chang Ryul Oh will come over to say hello, cradling a box of produce -- it could be anything from cantaloupes to cucumbers -- and gesture to a large portrait on the wall of him with famous Korean golfer K.J. Choi (Oh insists he's his brother). Oh used to be a Korean professional boxer himself, but after a few U.S. bouts in the '80s he decided to move to New York and became a wholesale produce dealer.
Now, Oh runs this small 10-table restaurant and uses his former produce contacts to distribute his bounty. Customers left that afternoon amazed by the cartons of fresh strawberries they had tucked under each arm, the same quality you'd find in the organic section at most supermarkets. The braised sablefish might have been one of the best I can recall -- deep, funky, and lip-curlingly spicy -- but when a restaurant eliminates a trip to the produce market for you, that's what tends to resonate the most.
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