The most frequent episodes of gastrono-overreach occur when unaccustomed variables ambush food professionals. Examples include a visiting chef in an unfamiliar kitchen venue, a multi-course theme dinner with unfamiliar ingredients and paired wines, or the number of diners expands by an order of magnitude over the covers on a regular shift (for an combined example of the formers, see Wolf in the Fog or Cruise Ship on the Rocks?; for the latter, keep reading). In MudGuide’s experience, food festivals in particular are subject to aberrant culinary parameters that are often compounded by organizational faux pax. So it was with a jaundiced palette and suitably lowered expectations that Team Mago attended the first (and hopefully annual) Portland Korea Food Festival at Ecotrust on 721 NW 9th Ave.
The good news is that the festival was extremely well organized and basically a whole lot of fun. The obligatory queue, which I have come to understand is actually a form of social interaction in Rose City, was efficient and friendly with no less than four very knowledgeable folks handling tickets and information. When my child bride discovered that she had forgotten her ID, a very nice young lady assured her that she passed visual inspection for the decrepit, helpfully shackled her with the color coded over-21 bracelet, and promptly directed her to the beer kiosk. The weather was excellent and the crowd very friendly, especially with respect to sharing Taffelsraum, which is key to enjoying chop stick-driven fressing. There were plenty of separated trash bins for refuge and, this being Portland, grass roots table bussing soon broke out all over the festival. Even Mayor Charlie Hayes dropped by, clearly angling for the foodie vote in next year’s election.
The single most impressive thing about the Korean Food Festival in an organizational sense was the “passport” issued to all ticketholders. Attendees were encouraged to have their passports stamped at each chef’s venue. This handy document allowed the chefs to control their food output, contributed to a fairly even distribution of diners amongst the twelve stalls, and most importantly abetted note taking and other mnemonic aids so important to your humble scribe once the third (and following) IPAs of the afternoon were broached. Speaking of which, the beer on offer was imminently potable; with pFriem’s IPA easily besting Georgetown’s red ale (we did not get around to pFriem’s Wit, which is a real shame, but there you go).
The story from the food stalls, however, was decidedly mixed. Before we get into individual cheers and jeers, however, it must be noted that with eleven real deal chefs and Beaverton’s Gobugi Market participating, the festival aced the satiety factor. No one who got her passport fully stamped could have left the festival hungry.
Unfortunately satiated and saporous ain’t synonymous. The underlying problem was that most of the chefs and their retinues were too ambitious for their venue. They weren’t stupid—everyone served up what the Korean American Coalition of Oregon called “a single-course sized dish,” but even constrained to a single dish or a slightly more ambitious duo, many dishes fell short of the mark.
Two of the top three dishes came from food cart chefs, which is not surprising given that the festival was essentially a multiple food cart experience. The clear winner was Bo Kwon’s (Koi Fusion) Koi bulgogi burger taco and gringo sushi. With additional kimchi, the taco was truly worthy of the Korean Fusion sub-genre. Chef Kwon not only served the best tasting food at the fest, but also the only really successful duo.
Rick Gencarelli (Lardo) would have romped home with his truly Lardo-worthy pork and kimchi midget submarine, except for an amazingly bad call with the accompanying fried pork rinds that landed him in third place. There must have been a whole dumpster stuffed with these inedible pieces of used sponge. Very few people even tried to eat them, but your correspondent took one for Team Mago and the experience brought tears of regret to my eyes. The flavor was really quite good, but it was impossible to get past the texture, or lack thereof. This was no culinary misdemeanor, like a faulty fryolater, but a porcine felony. Lardo? Dissing the immortal pig? In Porkland? The mind boggles.
Chef Gencarelli’s “peccato maiale” provided an opening for Brandon Kirksey (Girin), who served up some excellent bimbi gooksu (cold buckwheat noodles with radish and quail egg), to take second place in MudGuide’s humble opinion. Chef Kirksey’s noodles in a hot, sour, and spicy sauce turned out to be excellent Korean drinking food (whatever the chef’s intention) and would have placed first if he could have contrived to serve them with a soft-boiled quail egg rather than a hard-boiled one. This would not have been impossible for a chef of his caliber and it would have elevated the dish with a rich yolky mouth feel.
Han Hwang (Kim Jong Grillin’) proved to be another food cartrepreneur who got the venue right. His gable (barbeque pork) was perfectly cooked and served nice and warm, glazed with an understated sauce. Soondae, the second half of his duo, was Korean blood sausage. This was the first and only blood sausage in my life of culinary excess that left me unimpressed. I ate it amidst a group of people who were praising it for not tasting like blood sausage, and that indeed that was the problem. It was more like a finger foody way to serve a rice dish cooked and thickened with blood. Since this was my first soondae, it may well be that I simply do not know what it should taste like, but what seemed to me an over-supply of rice filler served to dilute what could have been a killer blood sausage. At the time I thought that it needed something zippy, and later research confirmed that soondae is usually served with a fiery sauce of gochujang chili paste and gochugaru chili flakes in anchovy stock. That was certainly missing from chef Hwang’s version.
Jonathan Yun (I Love Sushi) did in fact serve such a sauce with his tteokbokki (chewy rice cakes) and soup duo. Unfortunately the sauce was dumbed down for western palettes, or at least it was a lot tamer than what I remember of Seoul street food from almost (Dionysos help me) three decades ago. His odeng (processed seafood soup), however, saved the day and pulled his entry into the solid B category where most of his colleagues ended up as well.
I finally managed to locate and enjoy some real funky heat that transformed Gobugi Market’s ddeok (another take on steamed rice cakes) into something special, but I had to do a lot of the work. When I picked up the ddeok, I noticed some rather neglected packets of a chili paste as well as a dipping dish of honey. I asked about them and learned that the packets contained none other than the gochujang chili paste that was AWOL from soondae central. I found that the honey and the chili paste made the dish. These condiments should have been show cased and served prominently with a lot of the fare at the festival.
Peter Cho and Johnny Leach (Stray Dogs) served a very nice Korean fried chicken slider that strangely faltered on flavor. The slider itself was perfectly constructed for a festival venue. The bun was toasted crispy with a nicely contrasting chewy crumb, while the chicken was nice and warm. Unfortunately the fried chicken (actually a sort of processed chicken patty that proved to be too much of a departure from Stray Dogs’ acclaimed bone-in KFC ) was under-seasoned and the gochujang and tamarind glaze shockingly bland. A sad ending for such a promising slider.
Kyo Koo (Superhawk) also turned in a solid B performance with his bo ssam (pork belly boiled in spices and served thinly sliced with pickled veggies in a lettuce wrap). This iconic drinking food was perfect for the venue, but a bit flawed in execution like so many of its rivals. Boiled pork belly can be bland and this wrap screamed for assertive condiments, which were by and large absent except for the nice dollop of hot pickled zucchini that stood in for the traditional kimchi in this dish.
Another somewhat disappointing duo came from Haejung Lee (New Seoul Garden). Chef Lee’s kimchi was the best o’the fest, but he served it with a chunk of unadorned and cold tofu that diluted the tasty cabbage needlessly. Chef Lee’s pork bulgogi was correctly cooked but needed heat, a common complaint concerning the festival’s fare and rather inexplicable given that Korean food is rather famous for bold assertive flavors.
The final three chefs at the festival were major disappointments. Why did P. J. Yang of Bamboo Sushi choose to go with meat in the fist place, and then just basically phone it in? Chef Yang’s galbi (grilled beef short ribs in a ganjang-based sauce) were indifferently cooked and needed a lot more garlic, sugar, and heat. If your forte is fish and Koi Fusion is stealing your show with sushi just a few steps away, why run from the challenge? In my humble opinion, Chef Yang could have blown it out with a spicy fish stew (jeongol), which would have been perfect for the festival atmosphere as well as a shrewd cost-of-food move, given that Bamboo Shushi will generate plenty of tasty scraps for the soup in the course of one dinner shift. Oh well.
Likewise John Gorham (Toro Bravo) should have known better. I saved him for last because his dish had the most appeal for me, at least conceptually. An octopus and oyster pancake (haemul pajeon) seemed like a great ending to the festivities. And indeed the octopus and oyster were both perfectly cooked and provided an excellent contrast in texture and flavor. But they were enmeshed in a gooey inedible mess that had more in common with semi-melted latex than a pancake. There was way too much liquid in the batter and not enough cornstarch. This culinary denouement was completed by the total absence of the traditional soy sauce-based garlic and chili dipping sauce. Chefs Yang and Gorham need to seriously rethink their offerings before next year’s festival.
And finally the clunker of the afternoon goes to Johannna Ware (Smallwares) whose oxtail soup with radish and rice cake was just flat boring. Stewed oxtail should provide a deep, multi-layered flavor profile complemented textually by radish crunch and rice cake-supplied soft, chewy soakage. Unfortunately, the soup was served lukewarm at best, while the oxtail suffered from less than long, slow cooking. Soup is great idea for this type of venue, but you have to bring you’re a-game for a simple dish and make sure the service provides hot soup for the hungry hordes.
All in all Portland’s first Korean Food Festival was a splendid way to spend an early fall Sunday. Yes there were some first game mistakes, even for veteran chefs, but the superb organization and outgoing and friendly service played perfectly off the party vibe radiating from the large and enthusiastic crowd of foodies and local politicos. Hopefully the Korean American Coalition will be encouraged to make the festival an annual event.