For foodies, a destination city is usually one that has a Chinatown. For ultra-foodies, it’s now a city that has a Koreatown. New York’s Koreatown is on 32nd Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway. In Chicago, it’s the Albany Park neighborhood on the north side. Does Champaign have a Koreatown? Well, not exactly. Perhaps if they moved all the Korean groceries (Green Onion, Lee’s, Am-ko) and all the Korean restaurants (Miko, Kofusion, Woori Jib, Good Fella, B-Won, A-Ri-Rang, Sushi Avenue) into one neighborhood, then we might qualify.
But is Korean the new Chinese? In Champaign, it sure seems like it.
Of all the local Korean restaurants, the one that has impressed me the most is B-Won. This elegantly decorated and airy restaurant located on a strip mall has the most diverse menu and what seems to me, the most authentic food. On any given day, the dining room is always full of happy Korean diners, which should tell you something.
B-Won has all the popular Korean dishes — Bul Go Gui (marinated steak), Chap Chae (sweet potato noodles), Soon Doo Boo (tofu soup) — each dish has enough variations on the menu to please just about any palette. But when I see octopus, tripe, tongue and beef tail on the menu, my foodie antenna instantly goes up.
On a recent visit, we ordered the Stir-fried Octopus which was stir fried with their delicious spicy house sauce, cabbage, carrots, mushroom, onion, pepper, scallion and squash. The octopus was tender and the flavors of the sauce blended perfectly all the other ingredients.
Many of B-Won’s stirred-fried dishes are cooked tables-side, which makes for great entertainment and mouth-watering anticipation. One night, we ordered the Stone Pan Grill which came with a side salad and a ton of Korean side dishes. This is one reason Korean cuisine is so much fun. You get at least half-a-dozen side dishes with most entrees and they’re usually brought to your table right away. As you nibble on these tasty morsels, the waiter cooks your dinner for you at your table while you watch. If one of those side dishes becomes your favorite, they’ll gladly bring more just by asking.
Other favorites, especially during the summer is the Naeng Myun, a cold noodle dish made with a sticky-and-chewy buckwheat noodles mixed with a sweet-and-spicy sauce, then topped with raw veggies and slices of chilled cooked beef. It’s a refreshing dish that’s also fun to eat because the noodles ares so elastic.
Our favorite appetizer is the Pa Jun, a Korean-style scallion pancake that looks more like an omelette. We ordered the seafood version which was served like a pizza, sliced into triangles ready for dipping into a nicely balanced sweet-and-sour soy-based sauce.
We’ve been to B-Won probably five or six times and it’s on the top of our restaurant list to take out-of-town visitors to. So far we’ve been lucky with their service, which has always been good. Maybe that’s because we try to avoid those peak dinner times on Friday or Saturday night. I’ll be back soon to try their “drinker’s menu” (which seems to have some very strange meat dishes on it). I’ve tried to order from that page before, but since I don’t look Korean, the waiter has always talked me out of it. Which makes me want it even more…