Like dandelions blossoming from sidewalk cracks, restaurants can sprout up in unlikely places.
Legend has it that Ted’s Hot Dogs, with 10 locations locally and in Tempe, Ariz., started in a shack under the Peace Bridge. Bocce Club Pizza began in a bar more famous for amusement equipment than food, using a pizza oven discovered in the basement.
So when word reached me that a restaurant had opened where the kimchi cooler was in a Korean grocery called Woori Mart in Tonawanda, I didn’t hesitate for a moment. Sun, Buffalo’s first Burmese restaurant, went from a glorified card table in the back of a grocery store to three Buffalo locations and one in Williamsville.
Lin Restaurant in Riverside started as a produce concern, too, making grown-from-grocery its own Buffalo restaurant genre. The tables might be separated by shelving from aisles of soy sauce, rice cookers and dried noodles, but the most important real estate is the kitchen.
Woori Mart doesn’t have barbecue tables, leaving Korea House the sole possessor of Buffalo’s peak Korean title for that superlative dining option. But the offerings of chef-owner Hyang Lee provide compelling reasons to stop by for both kimchi-obsessed and merely Korean-curious.
Banchan, little dishes of auxiliary vegetables, fermented Napa cabbage kimchi and other bites that arrive before main dishes, were in fine form at Woori. One was fish cake and sliced fish balls, made of a springy textured ground whitefish mixture soaked in sweet sesame soy. Domino-sized servings of acorn jelly were a sweet-starchy bite, sweet potato flavor a bit stiffer than cranberry gel. Slivered squid jerky in sweet-spicy chile sauce might sound far out, but they are briny sea gummies – tasty snacks with a hint of the sea. My only problem was that I didn’t have a beer.
Kimchi jeon ($17 large) was a hubcap-sized Korean savory pancake, browned like a well-done omelet. Eggy batter held shredded carrot, onion, scallions and more vegetables, including a dose of the namesake fermented Napa cabbage. Served in wedges, it was a hearty appetizer, but not quite cooked through as it was still custardy inside.
A broad bowl called ddukbokki ($14) offered more intense color than heat, its brick-orange expanse hiding enough solids to qualify as a stew. The payload included rice cakes, Tootsie Roll-caliber cylinders of rice pasta, sheets of fishcake (which soaked up the sweet-spicy chile broth well), hard-boiled eggs and sliced beef. Guests trawled its expanse looking for their favorite bites, spooning them out over white rice served in lidded stainless steel bowls.
Stews called jjigae usually arrive bubbling furiously. This particular cauldron of kimchi jjigae ($16) was placid, but plenty tasty with medium-aged kimchi and cubes of tofu that soaked up the broth, salty with misolike bean paste, like ricotta dumplings.
Grilled mackerel, saengseongui ($24), was two deboned skin-on fillets, lightly floured and pan-fried, fatty fish dealt with deftly. Crispy at the edges, the fish slipped off with a nudge of the fork, to be spritzed with fresh lemon.
Korean barbecue involves sliced meat or seafood, marinated, spiced or straight-up. Once cooked, bite-sized morsels are tucked into lettuce leaves, customized with dabs of bean-chile sauce, rice, banchan and kimchi, then devoured like tacos or splayed out over rice.
At Woori Mart, barbecue is kitchen-cooked, emerging on an iron sizzle platter. Bulgogi ($27) is beef, in this case ribeye, marinated in garlic, sesame and sweet soy so that slices caramelize at the edges. Galbi ($32) is beef short rib, a quarter-inch thick. The most steaklike barbecue cut, it arrives on a bed of onions and sliced garlic cloves, cooked to a supple medium.
Dwaeji bulgogi ($27) is lean sliced pork loin, in a spicier marinade, cooked with onions and scallions. Saengyup ($27) is pork belly, plain except for a scattering of salt and pepper and thick slices of garlic. It’s been cooked down in its own aromatic fat until crisp-chewy, then swabbed through a dish of seasoned sesame oil.
The barbecue dishes were accompanied by a salad of greens and scallion curls, dressed in sesame oil and soy sauce. This gratis accompaniment upped the flora-to-fauna ratio enough to make bulgoki bites more like salad rolls.
There are lots of other Korean classics available. Budae ($16) – with two kinds of sausage, pork, vegetables and ramen noodles in spice beef broth – is a meat lover’s stewy choice.
Noodle people, vegans and vegetarians should especially consider the japchae ($16), hold the beef. Sautéed glass noodles, chewy strands made from sweet potato starch, are lavished in garlicky-gingery-sweet-soy laced with slivered vegetables like carrots, scallions, bell peppers and greens. The regular version sports sliced sirloin.
One caveat: The mom and pop who run the place are starting small. Which means that after a review they might run out of things. Blame it on me, not them, if you would.
Think restaurant? You might be disappointed. Think grocery store? You might be impressed. Either way, I feel like these people should be encouraged. The world needs more dandelions.
Woori Mart – 7 plates (out of 10)
850 Niagara Falls Blvd., Tonawanda (836-3611)
Restaurant hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Market open longer hours, daily.
Prices: $11 to $32
Atmosphere: grocery quiet
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: No