Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: Chorong House

Name: Chorong House
Address: 1121 E Fayette St, Syracuse, NY
Phone: (315) 428-0501
Neighborhood: Near Eastside
Cuisine: Korean
Restaurant Hours: Monday to Friday 11 AM to 10 PM, Saturday 11 AM to 11 PM
Parking: Private Lot
Accepts Credit Cards: Yes
Takes Reservations: No
Take-Out: Yes
Waiter Service: Yes
Delivery: No

Following a trip from Green Lakes State Park, the sunny and sweltering Memorial Day called for a stop to Chorong House on Fayette Street in the city's Near Eastside. It was just my luck that they were open, as the other places I tried that day were closed for the Holiday. Unassuming from the street and a bit like a big plain, square house in the middle of nowhere, there isn't much else you can say from the outside, except for the "Open" neon sign in the window that guided my arrival. The private parking lot around the side and out back functions a bit more like a driveway, so a helpful tip when pulling in is to try to stay in-line with the rest of the cars (if there are any) as it seemed relatively non-regimented for parking.

There's two separate rooms upon entering through the side entrance. To the left, is the main area, with the kitchen, cashier's counter, and 5 or 6 tables with four chairs each to them. To the right, is a bigger room, with two tables set for floor seating, available for larger groups, and those wishing to use the karaoke machine (which is available by reservation). Mind you, you're essentially walking into a house done over as a restaurant, so ignore the set of staircases in front of you. It was all a tad confusing off the bat, but one of the workers quickly pointed me in the right direction.

It's seat-yourself, so I grabbed a spot at one of the empty tables near the counter and was given a menu and glass of water by the waitress. The interior is a bit like a small divided kitchen molded into a restaurant, so you can literally smell and hear the food being cooked next to you as you peruse the menu. The menu itself is written in both Korean and English, easily legible, and helped with accompanying pictures of specific dishes. Much of the descriptions in it will have to be loosely translated from memory here, as there's no menu online. Highlights include bibimbap, dumplings, fried pancakes, bulgogi, several spicy stews like soon tofu, noodle dishes like chop chae bop and kalguksu (which apparently is rare in 'cuse), and even a sushi roll pops up in the appetizers section.

The drink selection is somewhat limited, with a few canned sodas and beers displayed in a glass cooler near the entrance. Though trumped by this is the fact that they offer a few different kinds of soju here, which is the only place in Syracuse where I've noticed it before. Soju is essentially, an alcoholic drink similar to vodka but a bit sweeter. It was tempting, but I wasn't sure of its alcohol level and wanted to stay safe for driving home (on further investigation, it's usually stronger than wine and probably better for sharing, so it was a good decision). I really wanted to try some of the soups and stews too, but the day wasn't calling for it. It was way too hot to even contemplate doing so.

The order...

Vegetable pancake: $8
Beef Bulgogi: $15
Total Money Spent with Tax & Tip: $27

Exuse the iPhone quality and food that's been half-eaten in these pictures. I didn't feel ready to snap any pictures until later on through the meal.

Counterclockwise from top right: kimchi (napa cabbage), black beans, white rice, scallions, mac salad, and namul greens (forgive me if that last one is incorrect).

First up was the complimentary banchan brought to the table along with my appetizer. If you don't know, banchan is basically small Korean side dishes typically served cold, but come in hundreds of different varieties. I have this theory that most of it is somewhat of an acquired taste, due to the pickling, fermenting, and vinegars that takes place beforehand. I've slowly started to like most of the varieties since trying it for the first time a few years ago, but every now and then a few dishes, specifically the kimchi, still take some getting used to. However, I can pretty much put that notion to bed after having them at Chorong House. It's miles above anything remotely comparable in Syracuse or any of the other few places I've had it outside the city.

Most of these were really tasty, but my favorite by far were the green onions, which had good punch of chili heat and tasted extremely fresh. Granted I'm a picky eater and it wasn't overly filling, but it's the only time I've finished a whole small dish of banchan. The greens were next and they were outstanding. With a texture similar to swiss chard or spinach, they had a nice, light fresh taste to them and somewhat of a salty pickled taste as well. Following that was the napa cabbage, which was equally as good. Typically, there's always that initial tasting moment with napa cabbage kimchi that I almost have to force myself to get past. I found myself doing it at first here, but slowly realized that I didn't have to as I found it to be pleasantly spicy, flavorful, not overly pungent or fermented, and just delicious.

Yes, they even have macaroni salad. And believe it or not, it's actually not bad. Essentially, it seemed to be only mayonnaise and macaroni with a few green beans tossed in, but even so, I found myself picking at it more often than I thought I would. The pasta was cooked perfectly and whatever mayo was used, it had a thicker than normal consistency and yet remained both light and filling. I'd even dare to guess that it was homemade. The black beans, however, were a different story and not that appetizing. They were very hard, bland, and not as flavorful as any of the other side dishes. Also, I'm not necessarily an expert on technique, but the beans were a little difficult to pick with chopsticks.

Overall though, the banchan was excellent. There was nothing was overly pickled, briny tasting, or too spicy, and none of it needed to be. It was a very refreshing and a perfectly light start for a meal, most specifically highlighted by the beautiful scallions and greens. A bit of online digging reveals that they have their own vegetable garden out back and pickle and freeze everything themselves, which is a testament to how fresh everything was. And after sampling it here, I'd even consider getting the kimchi in an actual meal for next time as both kimchi sundubu and kimchi jeyuk bokkeum are on the menu.

The vegetable pancake was to-die-for! A little charring, caramelization, and grease (the good kind) on the outsides, while the inside remained light, doughy, and slightly airy. Large pieces of fully-cooked scallions and thinly sliced carrots stuffed in and around the crust, a hint of garlic, and the perfect, bubbly crunch on the outside edges gave the whole thing an outstanding flavor. It was served extremely hot and probably proof that it had just been hand-made and fried several minutes prior to being devoured. The dipping sauce was soy based and yet not overly salty. I found it to be a great light and tangy sauce for dunking. A few online reviews mention Chorong's seafood-style pancake which is supposed to be excellent as well and I knew that going in. Now I'm wishing that I hadn't shied away from it. I'll definitely have to give it a shot for next time.

If you've ever had the potato pancakes at Eva's, which are also superb, these vegetable ones were actually very similar in taste and just as delicious, if not more. It's strange to compare the two, but it just shows you how two authentic restaurants representing different countries and cuisines in the world can have something that's so randomly identical as this.

The beef bulgogi was wonderful - long, sauteed and crisp strands of white and green onions, thinly sliced pieces of sizzling marinated grilled beef (which near the end of the meal become delightfully caramelized by the hot pan it was served on), and topped with a good amount of freshly chopped scallions. The sticky rice was excellent on its own and only further made the entree that much more enjoyable when it was pieced together with grilled bits of beef and lightly charred white onions. Deeeeelish. (I'll stray from ever using that word again. It was really good).

Additional notes...

- There's a lunch special Monday through Friday. I wasn't able to spot the times (I think it's from 11 to 3?). $7.99 for several entree options like soups and bibimbap. Each comes with 3 kinds of kimchi.

- No need to wait for it, just approach the counter when you're ready to get your check. Also there's a 15% gratuity already included.

- Edible Fingerlakes featured an excellent article about the history, gardening, and local vegetable preparation regarding Chorong House that you can read here (scroll halfway down). For example, the mac salad and the occasionally available sliced hot dogs garnished with kimchi reflect the influence of US Military bases and Army surplus rations in Korea. It's definitely a good read and provides some really interesting background about the restaurant's preparation and influences.

A few online reviewers have mentioned that they prefer take-out as oppose to dining in, due to the ambiance. Sure, it might be a dive that's rough around the edges and a place where a new visitor might feel daunted, but it's a very clean and professional resturant. Personally, I felt comfortable there enough by myself the whole time. During my stay, relatively 10 or so visitors shuffled in and out for sit-down and take-out. I was the only white boy there and moreover, the only English-speaking patron. Yet, I was made to feel welcomed by the kind and friendly waitress (who spoke English fluently), the interior's unpretentious and down-to-earth atmosphere, and with its home-style food and charm. I didn't feel uneasy and felt very much relaxed and "at home", which only increased as the great food and flavors continued to set-in.

For you vegetarians, take note, as this place would rank high as one of my top spots for a good vegetarian meal. Everything I tasted was very fresh and very clean, most specifically the vegetables. Further, I fancy myself as an average home cook in most aspects, but this was far from better than anything I could've shallowly attempted to make in my own kitchen. I'm not even Korean and the food just had this overwhelmingly and delicious home-cooked feel and comfort-level quality to it. I was full and still found myself using my metalic chopsticks numerous times after setting them down to pick at more and more kimchi, thinly sliced beef, and fried pancake pieces, which is a good sign to represent how great of a meal it was.

I have several reasons for starting this blog and devoting time to it, but Chorong House is the prime example of the type of place I was originally hoping to discover in Syracuse. I will definitely be back here for take-out, lunch, or dinner again. I'm hooked and this visit unexpectedly helped make for a great meal and end to a perfect Memorial Day.

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