I’ve been spending more and more time in Murray Hill, Queens lately, the area known to Koreans as Mokja Golmok (먹자골목 M’uk-ja G’ol-mok) or “Let’s Eat Alley” or “Eater’s Alley”. With the help of my own Korean ambassador, Jim Kim, I’ve been shown more and more of the ropes of Korean eating and the insider’s view of the Korean scene in Queens.
Mokja Golmok is an area of the city where restaurants are concentrated, creating a eater’s row. Cities in Korea and Japan have sections like this. When many Koreans in Queens and Long Island want to eat out, they come to Murray Hill. It’s similar to St. Marks Place for Japanese, but here it’s much more expansive.
Here’s Korean ambassador Jim Kim with the rundown:
I am here to let you know of this uncharted realm of what is essentially the heart of the ‘ORIGINAL’ Korea Town. It lies deep within the heart of Queens to a place some say was the first Korea-town in the East Coast: The Northern Boulevards of Flushing/Murray Hill.
Only the few and the seasoned know the carefully guarded secrets of the clan; if you want to have GOOD Korean food, one should not look towards 34th in Manhattan, but to Northern Boulevard in Queens.
And there is a particular street dubbed the “Eater’s Alley” (먹자골목 M’uk-ja G’ol-mok) among Koreans in the neighborhood. It is located at 149th street stretching down towards Northern Boulevard. What is so interesting about this place is that each and every restaurant specializes in different Korean cuisines in order to differentiate and distinguish themselves against the general competition. Hence when you walk down the Eater’s Alley, you will see just about every unique Korean cuisine that can only be found in mainland Korea and nowhere else within the United States.
The range of unique dishes being offered reach from soft tofu stews, grilled ribs, sweet & spicy arrowroot noodles, cow’s head soup, potato stew, Royal’s lotus leaf meal, fugu stew, wild boar grill and toothfish grill (very expensive, but sooo worth it!). There’s also a local level gentrification going around the area, where youth are now beginning to open up to western-fusion. These modern restaurant bars specialize in fusion-Italian cream spaghetti, ‘The dreaded boiled Galbi‘, fiery chicken feet, rice crust soup, seafood cheese udon and so on and so forth. The recent turn of the economy hit hard in the neighborhood, but they remain resilient and prove once more that it is still the no. 1 destination choice for a night out within the Korean community.
One thing that came to my interest in particular was the increasing numbers of Korean-Chinese businesses within the large Korean community in Murray Hill. These are the people who have escaped the ravage in the mainland during the Japanese occupation and later, the Korean war. A number of them happen to be descendants of freedom fighters who fled the country in order to escape incarceration during the Japanese occupation of Korean peninsula. These facts demand much respect, but in reality the community holds little economic power, thus very minor political weight. As a result, many end up working as nannies/housekeepers within wealthy Korean households. A sad reality due to economic inequalities.
For those of you who are dying to ask this question: “Wait a second Jimmy Jim Jim, wasn’t this the Korean neighborhood where Anthony Bourdain visited in his show?” Correct! This the very same neighborhood Bourdain and David Chang of Momofuku were visiting! But even they have not heard of this particular area where only the local Koreans would know and hang out after a hard day’s work. A place where not many ‘outsiders‘ would know about, and I am grateful for this chance to show my friends what it really means to eat well by Korean standards.
Speaking of Chinese, there’s a particular restaurant called JoongGook Jip (중국집: Literally means ‘China House’.)
JoongGook Jip (China House)
149-08 41st Ave
Flushing, NY 11355-1041
It is a favorite restaurant of mine which specializes in JoongHwa Yori (중화요리: Korean-Chinese Cuisine), a casual comfort food for Koreans of all ages; a concept similar to how Italian Food is perceived in the United States.
Perhaps those of you who reside in Manhattan may already be familiar with this kind of dish from what you’ve had in 34th st, particularly for those familiar with the restaurant Shanghai Mong in K-town. It is the same dish in principle, but what they serve is miles apart in terms of quality to what we Koreans consider ‘edible‘.
There’s another restaurant here that will blow your mind as it currently happens to be my favorite restaurant in Queens. I know it is cliche to choose favorites, but this place is worth every letter of the word. It is called Ham Ji Bak (함지박), one of the original restaurants to open up in Eater’s Alley. Some may even go as far as saying this restaurant was THE REASON why Eater’s Alley started on 149th street.
In earlier times they’ve made headlines by serving up thick pieces of tri-layered pork bellies (sam gyup sal) served with sweet dipping sauce and toasted soybean powder dips (konggaru), similar to the Japanese version of Kinako. This combination of flavors gave it rave reviews among the Korean foodies and allowed Ham Ji Bak to make a name for itself. But with ever-mounting pressure from it’s local competitors and recent changes in economy, the golden times for Ham Ji Bak seemed to have ended. Everyone was expecting it to travel down the road where all once-popular restaurants have traveled, where there’s a change of taste in consumers or owners are selling the restaurant off to retire. But in fact, the recent challenges have triggered a revitalization and refocusing of their specialized menus, creating an array of dishes that are unique even in mainland Korea terms.
Ham Ji Bak
41-08 149th Pl,
Queens, NY 11355
And to think, these restaurants are situated away from roads with major foot traffic. Restaurants on Eater’s Alley survive solely based on their exclusivity and quality of their food. Because they know that once their quality goes down, the business stops. There is no reason why a customer should drive all this way to a remote pocket in middle of Murray Hill if what they serve here is no different from whatever can be served at the corners of their own streets.
This is the fascination and beauty I am enamored by in what is Eater’s Alley: where they are constantly pushed to strive for higher quality of food and dining experience, away from all the whistles and bells that distract your senses. It’s honest, straight-up quality dining. It doesn’t get any better than that.
I believe that first impressions are critical to anyone who encounters something unknown and unfamiliar. It is difficult to venture when you do not know where the road leads. Let your experience at Eater’s Alley help you through your gastronomic adventures in the future. Let it raise your standards and show you how good food can be. The best of NYC is basically the best in the world simply because NYC has the largest amount of diversity and thus different cuisines from around the world. And Korean food in eater’s alley happens to be the best meal you could get in NYC, thus Korean food is the best throughout the entire universe world.
Let this experience be your guide to your inner burgeoning foodie kingdom by finding your favorite spots of grubbery. Because at the end of the day, these restaurants where you have been, these dishes which you have tried will become your favorite dishes. And it will be you who will ultimately become champions of the very thing that they have been introduced into.