Min Sok: From chadolbaki to kimchi
MANILA, Philippines - There are few people in your life whom you meet fleetingly but will remember always, because of something special they did.
For me, such a person would be a woman called JG, and her claim to immortality lies in introducing me to Min Sok, a simple Korean restaurant that I will, when all is said and done, probably consider my lifetime favorite restaurant located in “Little Korea” near Rockwell.
I typically give directions to the restaurant by saying that it’s near Palacio Don Pedro. For any woman reading this, if you mention this to your boyfriend and he says, “Oh, okay, I know where it is,” you better start asking questions.
Min Sok is a decidedly hole-in-the-wall affair. The floor is linoleum, the tables are of the most functional wood. The restrooms are remarkably clean, and I’ve never seen the toilets without a healthy roll of tissue paper.
The restaurant is managed by a Korean couple who I refer to purely for convenience as the “Soks.” The woman-boss is friendly, the husband helpful. (He had offered to park my car, but sheepishly gave up because the space was too tight. Having done no better, I asked my wife to do the parking ,which she managed with a bit of clucking. Mr. Sok and I have since become friends.)
A teenager who I assume to be their son has come on board – and to my surprise he takes orders in impeccable Ateneo English.
A swirl of tastes
As with most Korean restaurants, the meal starts off with several types of appetizers called banchan. What I think to be one of the philosophies of Korean cuisine becomes apparent from the plates: for every spicy, flavorful dish, there’s an almost bland counterpart. You alternate between spicy and not spicy bites, and it’s the gastronomic equivalent of climbing steps to reach the peak of a mountain.
The best banchan is the “tempura,” which actually looks nothing like the Japanese dish. I can only describe it as small squares of fish cake, soaked in a spicy sauce. The flavor is reminiscent of fishball. Though thin, it is springy. The saltiness just holds back from becoming overpowering – it’s a great thing.
I follow this up with a slightly briny seaweed. The image I got was a concoction a la Ferran Adria of elBulli fame. Seriously, though, it’s amazingly addictive – that’s what subtle saltiness and a snappy texture (like longganisa skin) can do.
Completing the banchan would be spicy, pickled radishes, quail eggs, tofu drizzled with soy sauce, Korean pancakes, and sundry items.
The dishes are free, mind you, and I typically ask for two or more additional plates of the tempura. After many visits to Min Sok, however, I realized that asking for more appetizers seems to be a very Filipino thing – like pilfering toiletries in hotels. (“Hey, it’s free, or at least part of the price.”)
On to the meats
The stars of the show are the grilled meats. Min Sok has dozens and dozens of dishes. And yet, in the more than 30 times I’ve eaten there, I’ve only tried about 4 of these dishes. This violates my rule to never eat the same food when you revisit a restaurant. The meats are simply that good.
The meats that revolve around my Korean universe are chadolbaki (according to Google, thinly sliced beef brisket – I never knew what it was), deung sim (essentially steak), and samgyupsal (pork belly).
You char the meat over the grill (unlike with Japanese yakiniku, one doesn’t really need to care about doneness – you can go well done and it’s still great), dip it in seasoned sesame oil and ssamjang (a thick, flavorful soybean dipping sauce – I bought a tub and use it in everything at home), place it on a lettuce leaf, top it with a bit of rice, grilled garlic and onions, wrap the whole thing into what I now know as a ssam, and there it is.
What follows is what I hazard to be the central thesis of Korean cooking: a freakishly incredible explosion of flavors and textures.
On the first bite, you hit the crisp lettuce, followed by soft rice. You crunch on the meat, and the ssamjang and sesame oil flood through your tongue. You get the pungency of garlic and sweetness from the onion. Then all these come together in an awesome swirl of tastes – a predominant meatiness enhanced by strong brave waves of spice, salt, and garlic, hints of sour and sweet, all wrapped in a whirlpool of textures.
It’s definitely not subtle, and it's positively orgasmic.
If this sounds like a messy affair, it’s because it is. I consider myself a regular, and yet I’ve never mastered the art of putting that ball in my mouth without the contents dribbling down my chin.
And, oh, there’s no dessert. No sweet tamago, not a complimentary slice of melon. They don’t even peddle those wonderful Korean ice creams like the more commercial Korean restaurants do.
Given the savory assault of the meal and the slick of oil on your tongue, you would probably want to head straight to the nearest sweet shop, even though you’d be reeking of fried fat. - Rappler.com
Min Sok is located at the corner of Jacobo and Don Pedro Streets in Poblacion, Makati City. It’s generally behind Rockwell, near a wrestling establishment. Budget per person is around P350 to P400. It gets very crowded by 7pm. Min Sok is the author's go-to restaurant on Fridays.
Philip Ranada is a lawyer working in Makati. He collects cookbooks, but is unable to execute the recipes with any semblance of competence, so he decided to write about food instead. He has a long-suffering wife, and is looking to her to fund his food endeavors.