The opening of the George Washington Bridge in 1931 put Fort Lee on the map. The panic over the state’s first high-rise boom in the early 1970s put the borough in the headlines. But only in the last twenty years—as the Korean community has grown to just under a third of the total population of 40,000—has Fort Lee become a dining destination.
One town over, in Palisades Park, a similar story unfolds. For years the borough was incorrectly associated with Palisades Amusement Park, which straddled Fort Lee and Cliffside Park and closed in 1971 to make way for—yes, high-rise apartments. Once almost entirely Italian, Pal Park, as locals call it, has developed a vibrant Korean community accounting for 6,000 of its 20,000 residents. In the last twelve months, Palisades Park has seen the opening of the first American branch of a large Korean shoe company (Kumkang); the third American franchise of a Korean body products and cosmetics company (Face Shop); and the first East Coast shop in a 1,500-store Korean bakery and coffeehouse chain (Paris Baguette).
New Jersey has the third largest Korean population in the country, according to the 2000 census, and more than half of the state’s Korean residents live in Bergen County. That makes for an active and highly discerning restaurant clientele. Every dedicated and enthusiastic eater, regardless of ethnic background, stands to benefit.
Korean cuisine is simple and light; it can be soothing or bracingly spicy. “Korea has many different climates within its borders, and our dishes are designed to warm you up or cool you off,” says Victoria Min, who emigrated from Korea as a child and lives in Fort Lee. “They’re strongly flavored and perfect for foodies.”
To prove the point, Victoria provided an insider’s guide to the best Korean eateries in the area. Our tour commenced at Fort Lee’s busiest coffeehouse and gathering place, the Korean-American owned and operated Parisienne Bakery (250 Main St, 201-592-8878), which despite its name is owned and operated by Korean-Americans and serves Korean-style baked goods to a mostly Korean-American clientele.
It’s hard to turn down the sweet cakes, cookies, and tapioca buns; the latter ($1.50 each) are made with pleasantly chewy tapioca flour filled with mild, sweet, red bean paste. Also enjoyable are the empanada-like pastries called Dutch bread. These tasty pocket pastries ($1–$1.50 each) come with sweet or savory fillings. Try the curried beef or the spiced tuna salad.
Yiga (799 Abbott Blvd, 201-886-0009) is a romantic little spot with brick walls and a wine list. Yiga’s elegant specialty (available only at dinner) is ku jol pan, or nine treasures, a traditional showcase for a Korean chef’s talents. It is served in a tray with eight compartments surrounding a central stack of delicate, sesame-sprinkled crêpes (the ninth treasure) in which you wrap the delicacies. These are likely to include a sliced omelet and several tangy marinated foods such as grilled or sautéed squid, beef, fish, chicken, mushrooms, and seasonal vegetables. It’s a Korean version of a Japanese bento box, and it invites you to experiment with different combinations of the foods and accompanying condiments ($24.99 per person).
A few blocks north, Chicken BonChon (2467 Lemoine Ave, 201-461-1212) slings the current Korean food craze, tong dak, fried chicken. The whole bird is dusted with flour, deep-fried, and racked to drain. Then it is cut into parts and deep-fried again, after which it is coated with a spicy sauce. Somehow, all that frying seals in moisture, while the skin comes out crackly, not greasy. For $20 a bird it had better taste good, and it does. Although there are a few tables, BonChon is mostly takeout. Order ahead.
Nestled in Cliffside Park between Fort Lee and Palisades Park, the Palisadium (700 Palisadium Dr, 201-224-2211) boasts a dazzling view of Manhattan and one of the best all-you-can-eat buffets in the area. Come ravenous. The international offerings include many Korean specialties—delicious naeng myun, sesame-redolent cellophane noodles strewn with meat and vegetables—as well as fresh sushi, pork ribs slathered with a honey barbecue sauce, teriyaki salmon, a raw bar, soups, salads, lasagnas and parmigianas, and a dessert bar (lunch and brunch, $16—$19; dinner, $26—$28).
In Palisades Park, Broad Avenue is a Korean food walk of fame. Signs in both Korean and English announce bars, bakeries, groceries, take-out shops, noodle houses, and bulgogi restaurants. Bulgogi is the Korean food genre that non-Koreans are most likely to have tried. Strips of raw marinated beef, pork ribs, chicken, or seafood are brought to your table with a variety of well-suited condiments and vegetables, including kimchi, the staple spicy pickled cabbage.
You cook the thinly sliced meats over a grill set in the middle of the table. Tender meat eaten sizzling right off the grill is tasty, to say the least, and tending the strips is fun and nearly foolproof. The marinated beef in particular tolerates a wide range of doneness. If you leave it on the grill a bit too long, the surface caramelizes and the texture becomes almost crispy. You might even prefer it that way.
Most bulgogi places have gas grills. At So Moon Nan Jib (238 Broad Ave, 201-944-3998) they do it the old-fashioned way. At regular intervals, a staffer equipped with tongs bursts from the kitchen carrying hot metal pans filled with glowing chunks of real oak charcoal. This elemental heat source is inserted under your grill, and you’re on your way. The charcoal lends a delectably smoky flavor to the meats. Wrap some meat and condiments in lettuce leaves and eat it with rice (about $22 per person). Depending on what you put in the wrap, you can make each bite as simple or as complex as you want.
Korea has its own noodle and dumpling tradition, which you can explore at Myung Dong (452 Broad Ave, 201-947-1199). Order beef stew with handmade noodles ($8), and you’ll get a tangle of linguine-like wheat noodles, made in-house, that expand in volume, softness, and flavor as they absorb the hot beef broth. Go ahead and slurp—slow eaters will face a gelatinous mass at the bottom of the bowl. Lurking among the noodles are savory mandoo (dumplings) filled with ground beef, tofu, and chives. Fish them out and dip in soy sauce seasoned with chopped hot peppers and scallions.
Several Broad Street establishments specialize in mandoo. At You-Chun (135 Broad Ave, 201-363-1950), a rustic, wood-paneled joint, where the servers are college-age and the vibe is young, expertly fried beef-and-chive dumplings are the thing to eat in or take out. Mandoo are similar to Chinese potstickers and Japanese gyoza, but the filling has a nice chive and pepper punch (eight dumplings, $7.95).
Pal Park’s answer to Fort Lee’s Parisienne is Paris Baguette (408 Broad Ave, 201-592-0404). Part of a huge Korean chain that also has three stores in Los Angeles, the Palisades Park branch opened this year; another is slated to open in Fort Lee before the end of 2007. The frozen sweets—flavored shaved ice with canned fruit—are authentically Korean. Also good is the sugar-dusted doughnut ($1) or a pastry filled with mocha cream ($2), both similar to American models.
Authentic Korean baked goods—and a young crowd—can be found at Shilla Bakery & Coffee Shop (329 Broad Ave, 201-585-8191). The cookies and pastries, made with rice or wheat flour and often studded with crunchy nuts or sesame seeds, make a visit worthwhile.