Take One: Although typically we’d like to give a spot a few tries before writing our review, sometimes we get really excited. ‘Take One’ will highlight the dishes that left our resident food writer, Kevin Vaughn, wanting seconds.
Everybody stares conspicuously as we make our way down a thin passageway that suddenly juts off from a crowded street in the wholesale section of Flores. Past a Korean-Chinese restaurant, a handful of kosher delis and a small maze of floppy tables and chairs is a blue door that screams to be noticed amongst all the beige. Behind it waits a small garden patio stuffed with big pink shrubs that leads into a series of dining rooms at Casita Azul, where a small crowd of people skillfully hover over cloudy bowls of oxtail and bibimbap.
You have arrived.
The server quickly brings over a jug of water and leather bound menu filled with a dozen photos of the house specialties, including familiar neighborhood staples like bibimbap and naengmyeon as well as less recognizable bowls of plump mandu and mahogany shades of oxtail falling off their propeller shaped bones.
Her presence is felt from across the room. Chef Han Guk Kwan, who is known more affectionately as Mama Moon, broods over an altar of kimchis, bowls of thick gochujang, vats of sesame and rice oils and loose leaves that come in every shade of green. From the back of the dining room, only the back of her head wrapped in a flannel bandana is visible as it pops back and forth between a stove top and her personal apothecary.
The kitchen moves slowly, and as diners wait, her son Samuel brings over a series of banchan — crunchy daikon radish wrapped in a slightly sweet mix of gochujaru, crushed red chile often used in kimchi; mussels that pop and gush of gochujang that pounds the taste buds; flatbeds of tofu mixed with crisp and acidic green chiles and pan fried tofu squares dressed in earthy aged soy sauce; soft kimchi cabbage with just a hint of mustard flavor when your teeth tease out the juices.
For mains, this is the first place I have seen tok-manduguk. Delicate dumplings hide finely minced pork that float atop an impossible white broth. Dig deep and you will find tteokbokki, stripes of thick rice cake, as well as strands of egg. The combination of starch and yolk add a surprising clouded color and thick and satisfyingly buttery bite. A cast iron bowl of galbichim, short ribs cooked in a powerful mix of sugar and sesame, hits you in the nose with a decidedly carnivorous perfume. The flavor intensifies at the bottom, where the marrow dances a duet with the sweetened soy and funky sesame.
The entire menu would only take a few more visits to devour. It is a challenge that I will gladly accept.
Address: Pasaje Valle 12, Flores
Hours: Monday through Friday from 8am to 3pm and 5 to 7:30pm; Saturday from 8am to 3pm
Price per person: $450-500