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Chef spreads out the specialties at Tsang's spinoff

Friday, January 11, 2002

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

Say "Korean food" and I think "kim chee."

A specialty at Jimmy's Korean Grill: Bulgogi served with Korean rice, kim chi, sweet and sour cucumbers, lotus root, bean sprouts, marinated soy beans, smelt, steamed spicy potatoes, lettuce and fresh garlic. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

But look at all these dishes spread out on the table! First a hibachi, or hot plate, with pieces of thin, lean, marinated beef cooking on top. Then a string of seven little dishes with lotus root, soy beans, tiny smelts and other strange things, and a metal bowl of white rice. And yes, the spicy, pungent kim chee, too.

A man has come out of the kitchen at Jimmy's Korean Grill to move the pieces of beef around on the grill, and show His Honor and me how to snag one with chopsticks and prepare it for eating. The beef is dipped into an accompanying sauce, then goes into the center of a lettuce leaf with red bean paste and a clove of garlic. (We've got a whole bowl of garlic cloves!) Finally, you roll it up and enjoy.

Yes, H.H., he said "Enjoy."

Basically a meat, potatoes and wine man, H.H. isn't so sure that's possible. But he's game, and we dig in.

Both of us wish the man from the kitchen had let us do our own grilling; the beef is too well done for our taste. He cooked all the beef at once, too, so some pieces cool down before we get to them.

But the food in general is different, to say the least, and fun to try. The dish we're sharing is bulgogi, or Korean barbecue, the most popular dish in Korea, according to the menu. We could have had chicken or pork bulgogi, too. All bulgogi serve two or four people.

The menu is a lot like a Chinese menu, with many choices. Each one, thankfully, has English translations. Otherwise how would we know whether we'd prefer the duck guk (rice cakes and slices of beef simmered in a beef broth) or the jue yook bok gum (sauteed calamari strips)?

Eating here is an adventure. The little room on the side of Jimmy Tsang's popular Chinese restaurant has three small tables, two booths, a bar and the usual television sets on the wall. The booths are just inside the window onto Centre Avenue, and if you are seated there, it's chilly.

Essentially it's a bar, so people smoke. If customers don't want to be in a smoking area, Tsang seats them in the private banquet room across the foyer. Korean food is not served in the main restaurant.

Even reading the menu is an adventure here. It's in white script on black paper, encased in plastic, difficult to make out in the rather dim light. Fortunately, the staff is helpful in decoding it all.

The chef, Victor Chen, is from South Korea, but he has been working with Tsang for about six years. With the opening of the Korean Grill in late fall, he has one part of the restaurant's kitchen reserved for preparing the Korean dishes.

Basically, the Korean dishes are beef, some chicken and pork, seafood and beans, along with vegetables that might be grown in Korea. Think cabbage, cucumbers and radishes, usually spicy. Eel, jellyfish, seaweed and 1,000-year-old eggs are in some dishes. Others -- like breaded, fried chicken breast stuffed with green onions, served over rice and bok choy -- are much less exotic.

One of the best dishes we've had here is an appetizer, shrimp tempura, which seems more Japanese. Five big fresh shrimp, coated with panko, or fine Japanese bread crumbs, were lightly deep-fried and served with a sweet, ginger sauce. Gyozo, the Korean-style fried dumplings, were less successful. The dumplings were tough and difficult to bite. We poked the pork filling out of the dumplings with our chopsticks, and ate that with the green onion-studded sauce.

Descriptions of some of the dishes on the menu are intriguing. Bibimbop is the traditional Korean meal in a bowl. The ingredients are served over rice, and topped with a fried egg. Mul neng myun, or buckwheat noodles in a cold beef broth, is billed as the most popular fare in all of Korea. (Hasn't McDonald's arrived in Seoul yet?)

Humul pujun is "popular with the royal family," which is enough of a lure to get me to try it. It's a big seafood pancake, somewhat like a thin pizza, with hot peppers, onions, shrimp and calamari baked into the pancake. Nice try, but it would have been better if the shrimp had a fresher flavor. It comes with a sweet, tangy sauce for dipping.

Appetizer prices range from the Korean cucumber soup for two, $4.95, to an assorted cold tray, with smoked scallops, jellyfish salad, 1,000-year-old egg, and steamed mussels, enough for up to eight people, for $28. Kol bi kui, the marinated short ribs grilled on your hibachi, are $27.95. Beef bulgogi for two is $25.95. Most of the other entrees are under $15. Tsang is making a big push to feed the late-night eaters. The last two hours before closing each night are half-price time at the Korean Grill. "Cheaper than McDonald's," Tsang says.

The wine list (the same as for Tsang's) has reasonable prices. A bottle of Lindemans blend of cabernet and shiraz is $19. But beer is better with Korean food; it even helps kim chee go down easier. Tsang's stocks a lot of different domestic and imported beers, and the Japanese kirin, on tap, is right with the Korean dishes.

Korean food is not common in Pittsburgh. Jimmy Tsang deserves a lot of credit for offering the city something different. However, he still has some work to do. The food, for example, is served right onto the cover plates which are on the tables when you arrive. The plates are cold, so the food cools off quickly.

It may take a while, and some adjusting of recipes, but Pittsburghers have embraced Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai dishes, why not Korean?

Jimmy's Korean Grill
5700 Centre Ave.

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-midnight, Sunday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m., Friday and Saturday; half-price from 10 p.m.-midnight, Sunday-Thursday, and 11 p.m.-1 a.m., Friday and Saturday.

The basics: Korean dishes prepared by chef from South Korea, served in small addition to Chinese restaurant; smoking permitted in bar-grill area, but non-smokers can be served in small, separate banquet room; not noisy; parking at meters on street; wheelchair accessible to non-smoking section; major credit cards; reservations accepted, but not necessary.

The last word:

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