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April 23, 2012

Cafe Ga Hyang

Banchan Dominic Armato

Just a couple of months after I arrived in Phoenix, I got an email from a fellow food nerd (and now good friend) who'd noted that I'd moved here and generously wanted to welcome me to town. The question of when we should get together to get some grub and hang out led to my usual suggestion that late night is easiest, since I can slip out once everybody else is asleep. He informed me that Phoenix wasn't much of a late night town, and though I was marginally aware of this at the time, I figured we could always just fall back to the late night failsafe.

"So let's go get some Korean BBQ, then."
"There isn't any late night Korean BBQ."
"C'mon, there's always late night Korean BBQ. That's why Korean BBQ exists. Baltimore was a way earlier town than Phoenix, and there were two joints open until 4AM right next door to each other. I'll find some and drop you a line."

This little bit of hubris culminated in two hours of internet searching, capped by stunned surrender after finding just one Korean restaurant in the entire city that was open after 9:00. It closed at ten. This was a bit of a rude awakening when it comes to just how lacking Phoenix is in the late night department, but as of two weeks ago, consider at least one late night wish granted.

BanchanDominic Armato

Well, two weeks for me, anyway. Cafe Ga Hyang has been around for a number of years, but it was about ten months ago that Sun -- the current primary server, culinary architect and hosting matriarch -- left Takamatsu around the corner to run her own space. She took over the restaurant, completely revamped the menu, extended the hours, and fulfilled one of my top personal wishes for the Phoenix restaurant scene: a really, really good late night Korean joint. It's a dim but cozy space when she kicks on the mood lighting around ten, done in faux Korean village style with photos of dishes adorning the walls. Though the disco ball and laser lights, even if they lie dormant, make me wonder if "closing time" is just when they close down the kitchen and crank up the K-pop. Sun's a pip, possessed of grandmotherly years and sprightly energy, a chatty and enthusiastic chef/owner who's not only happy to recommend dishes, but is just as eager to tell you how they're made and the best way to eat them. In fact, sometimes she'll be quite insistent about the best way to eat them. And the next thing you know, a pair of chopsticks has materialized in her hand and she's preparing a plate for you the way it should be done. With the discovery of Ga Hyang (thank you, Helen!), I have obtained both a new favorite late night haunt and, apparently, a new Korean grandma. But the latest hours and friendliest staff would just be a letdown if the food weren't up to snuff. What has me doing backflps is that Ga Hyang would be my favorite Korean joint in town even if it weren't for all of the fringe benefits.

ManduDominic Armato

It starts with the banchan, those dishes full of little nibbles that come, by default, with anything you order. It's immediately evident that there's a lot of love and attention lavished upon this food. Sun prepares all of her banchan fresh, and it shows in crisp textures, bold flavors and a slowly rotating selection that means something new usually pops up every time you stop by. The quality is head and shoulders above anything else I've had in Phoenix, and the impressive variety -- even ordering a bowl of soondubu as a single diner netted me nine items -- is delightful and doesn't seem to mitigate their quality one bit. When mandu (listed on the menu as gyoza) like this are a weak point, that's a really, really good sign. The wrapper, to me, leaves a little bit to be desired, crisp and not too oily but a little thin and lacking character. But the pork and cabbage filling is warm and flavorful and fabulously moist. The first one I bit into squirted halfway across the table. And the dipping sauce, spiked with a number of aromatics, has a little more life and complexity than usual.

Duk BokiDominic Armato

Though Korean isn't all about the chiles, there's no denying their prominence, and nowhere on the menu is it more evident than in the duk boki. This appetizer consists of cylindrical rice cakes, about two inches long, thick as a robusto, with a chewy, glutinous texture, which are stir-fried with onions and chiles and a thick sauce with the consistency of Italian-American Sunday gravy. The rice cakes are simple and unassuming with a pleasantly gummy chew, but their mild-mannered flavor is offset in the most aggressive way possible by a sauce that's pure fire. Though the sweetness meant that my instantaneous first instinct was to think tomato, I believe it's pure pepper. But lest you think this is only about heat, it actually strikes a surprisingly pronounced balance that evokes the sweetness you expect from a roasted red bell pepper and the blistering fire you expect from the hottest Asian chiles. Capsaicin junkies will find it delightfully piquant, but mere mortals need be wary.

Sam Gyup SahlDominic Armato

There are no table grills at Ga Hyang, so I can't call the BBQ a strength, but that isn't to say the BBQ dishes -- prepared in the kitchen -- aren't worthwhile. Kalbi and bulgogi are beautifully marinated and come out on hot cast iron plates atop a bed of sizzling onions. It's no substitute for a live coal grill in front of you, and somewhat disappointing when you're accustomed to meat that goes straight from the fire into your mouth, but even if the sizzle is somewhat lacking, the flavor is excellent. One dish that doesn't seem to lose too much, however, is the Sam Gyup Sahl. Slices of pork belly a quarter inch thick are grilled and served with shredded lettuce tossed with oil and rice vinegar, salted sesame oil for dipping, the sweet and salty fermented bean paste called ssamjang, and raw chiles and garlic. Here, little details make the dish. Unlike many K-BBQ joints that slice the pork on a machine, Sun hand slices thick slabs which stay moist and juicy rather than drying out like their thinner bretheren. Also, the edges are carefully clipped, so that the pork lays flat and doesn't curl while cooking. It seems like such a little thing, but it makes a big difference. I wouldn't do the kalbi or bulgogi unless I just had to have piles of meat, but the Sam Gyup Sahl I'll enjoy without feeling like I'm missing out on the grill.

Pork Belly with Kimchi and TofuDominic Armato

Another pork belly dish that will definitely be in my personal rotation is listed on the menu as Kimchee Je Yook Bokeum, and it's one of those dishes where the whole thing put together is more than the sum of its parts. My first bite was of the pork belly, sliced similarly to the Sam Gyup Sahl, but glazed here with a thick, sweet and salty marinade made sticky by the cooking. This was tasty enough, except that I'd missed the kimchi beneath, and when Sun insisted they be eaten together (I would have if I'd seen it!), the result was a perfect pair, spicy and tart pickled vegetable lending balance and punch to the meaty, fatty sweetness of the pork. The third element, thick slabs of firm tofu, could be seen either as a third player in this mix or as a mellow respite between bites of explosive flavor. I dug this one.

Beef SoondubuDominic Armato

Soondubu is always hot, in both senses of the word. Chiles are no problem for me, but I've yet to make my peace with the Korean practice of serving soups that resemble bubbling magma. When something is served at a full-on boil, in a vessel that retains heat and ensures the boil lingers, my desire to eat always ends up at odds with my desire not to turn my tongue into a permanently scarred and disfigured nub. The struggle is particulalry difficult when the soup is this tasty, when the broth isn't just about the chile paste but has a really nice roundness and depth as well, derived from fresh beef or a variety of abundant seafood, depending on which version you get. The tofu within is silky smooth, and the freshly-cracked egg hidden at the bottom -- if you get to it quickly enough to mix it in before it cooks through -- adds another level of richness. This is some delicious soup.

Haemul PajeonDominic Armato

The Haemul Pajeon inspires, for me, a reaction that's all-too-common when tasting a simple dish that crosses every T. Why can't everybody do this right? Why is this so hard? Pajeon isn't something I've made in my spare time, so perhaps it's a far more finicky food than I imagine, but for whatever the reason, pajeon like this is the exception rather than the rule. That it's jam-packed with tender vegetables and an assortment of fresh seafood is good, that it's delightfully eggy and perfectly seasoned is better, and what puts it over the top is that they absolutely nail what I consider to be the perfect texture, browned and unashamedly crispy on the exterior, tender and warm and moist in the center. Served steaming hot with a little splash of a light soy and vinegar-based sauce, I presume that pajeon can be better than this, but I haven't had it.

Kot Gae ChigaeDominic Armato

The menu's chock full of stews, many of them spicy, and I've had a couple of varieties that I enjoyed quite a bit. The Kot Gae Chigae is crab-based, a spicy and briny broth with a large crab cleft into quarters simmering within. What matters most here is that the flavor of the seafood comes through in the broth, which captures both the sweetness of the meat and the funk of the innards, making for a soup with crab flavor that isn't overpowering, but is still all-encompassing of the beast. The Saeng Sun Maeun Tang looks the same on the surface, but man, is a lot of stuff crammed in there. Sliced chiles, onions, carrots, zucchini, green onions, fresh herbs, shrimp, mussels, squid, pollock, three kinds of mushroom, tofu... more I'm forgetting, probably. And all of these bits and pieces come together to generate a delicious, full-flavored stew. While I was devouring this one, Sun's cook wandered out of the kitchen and mentioned that they do a similar version with monkfish. I'm a little ashamed that I haven't tried it yet.

Naeng MyunDominic Armato

There are a handful of noodle dishes on the menu, including the obligatory Jap Chae, which is appropriately slippery and bold and extra good paired with kalbi and some kimchi. But one noodle dish that I'd somehow managed to avoid tasting until now is the Naeng Myun, and come August this will be my favorite dish in the entire city. Extremely thin, gelatinous buckwheat noodles are swimming in a light, thin, and lightly sweetened broth, along with sliced cucumbers and Asian pear, sliced beef brisket, pine nuts and hard boiled eggs. You cut the noodles with a pair of scissors, squirt in a little hot mustard, mix it all up and dive in. Thing is, it's cold. No, I take that back. Cold is an entirely inadequate adjective. The dish is downright frigid, due in no small part to the fact that it's topped with handfuls of shaved ice, dumped right into the bowl. This is genius on multiple levels, because not only does it ensure that this sweet and spicy concoction hovers at about 32.2 degrees while you eat it, but the ice shavings also add a really cool and pleasurable textural angle. It's the very definition of refreshing, and I can't imagine a savory dish that would be a better break from the desert heat. I have no frame of reference here. I've passed over Naeng Myun on Korean menus countless times before. What what I was missing always this good?

Cham PongDominic Armato

Another great noodle composition that also demonstrates Sun's attention to detail is the Cham Pong. For reference, you could fit a basketball in this bowl. It's a huge stew, a full-flavored and spicy broth brimming with delicious seafood and whole shrimp so fresh and tender that there's some prime headsucking here for those who care to partake. It's spicy, but not so much that the seafood gets lost. And on the basis of all that, this dish is good enough, but the bonus is that the broth hides a pile of thick noodles which Sun hand-prepares in house, and they're fabulous. They have a light flavor and a nice dense, resistant chew. At $12, this dish is a total steal. It's kind of ridiculous.

I've managed to try a few more over the past two weeks, but hopefully that's enough to make the case. I love this place. No, it's not going to impress somebody who's been hanging around K-Town in Los Angeles, but it's really, really good -- undoubtedly my favorite in Phoenix. And it's a happy blessing that it's run by a welcoming and entertaining character who seems committed to maintaining late hours. Still, if for no other reason than the continued sanity of this humble food blogger, let's not leave this to chance, huh? Screw Delux and Carlsbad Tavern and every other hip joint with middling food that defines Phoenix's late eats scene. Let's stop pretending that dinner until 11 means late by any objective measure. Twenty lashes for anybody who complains that Ga Hyang is on the wrong side of the 17 (twenty lashes for the suggestion that there IS such a thing as a wrong side of the 17). Throw some friends in the back seat, roll down the windows, crank up the music and go for a little ride... what's more invigorating than cruising through the city at night, particularly when there's some killer Korean waiting for you on the other side? Hell, I'll even drive you. Drop me a line at midnight and there's at least a 50/50 chance I'm in. This is not a joke.

Cafe Ga Hyang
4362 W. Olive Avenue
Glendale, AZ 85302
Mon - Sat11 AM - 2 AM
Sun11 AM - 11 PM


Love your writing style. Must have Cham Pong! DM me next time you go? This is not a joke. ;)

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