The plan was perfect: our small group, including myself, The Quaker, Liz (who has joined us on similar food treks and is responsible for our new design), the DAsian and his Korean friend would rendezvous at Penn Station on a recent Saturday for a 7 PM LIRR train to Flushing. Once there, we would descend on Sik Gaek, a Korean restaurant known to be the premier purveyor of live octopus in the NYC area.
Unfortunately, the execution was a mess. The Quaker, Liz and myself got off the subway at Penn Station one-by-one at the agreed upon time and started looking around for The DAsian, who I trust as the "leader," for some reason, when we're going to Korean restaurants. Yet, not only was he nowhere to be seen, but he was completely out of cell phone contact. We had purchased tallboys for the wait/ ride, but they were soon exhausted as the delay progressed from simple lateness to utter absurdity, during which I left increasingly threatening voicemails on the DAsian's phone.
Forty five minutes passed. Just for a moment I was worried about The DAsian, thinking that he may have gotten hit by a bus or fallen into an open manhole. We figured their must have been some kind of emergency, and, like good friends do, we decided to gorge on Korean BBQ (in his memory, of course) in K-town, across the street from Penn Station. We made our way outside, and just as we were crossing the street, the DAsian finally called to conveniently let me know that they were waiting in the restaurant. After a short argument peppered with excessive swearing and citations to a confusing email, we conveniently caught the next train to Flushing. We stewed throughout the train ride, hungry and exasperated by the failure of our best laid plans and making empty threats about what we'd do to the DAsian when we saw him--- like push his face in a pot full of octopi or draw a mustache on him like the girl below.
After a 30 minute train ride, plus 15 minutes of walking in circles, we finally entered Sik Gaek, hungry and pissed. After winding through the crowded benches full of Koreans filling up on exotically flavored sojus, we spotted The DAsian and his friend, who were holding down a seat for us. Once seated, I started drinking copious watermelon soju and HB beer to placate my anger (and hunger).
We left the ordering to the DAsian and his friend, who decided on a large chicken dish cooked rather than the seafood hot put, which I'd salivated over all week. I regretted not being more forceful about wanting a big-Goddamn hot pot full of seafood as I watched towers of steam emanate from a massive pile of crustaceans and mollusks at a neighboring table. I accept responsibility for that failure, but that doesn't mean I don't want to push the DAsian's face into a hot pot any less (or hope he gets attacked by an octopus-- it could happen).
OK, enough about my revenge fantasies (I'll get him when he's least expecting it). On to the food. First up, assorted appetizers consisting of dduk, carrots and celery with gojuchang, and freshly fried eggs.
If you've had one ddukboki, you've pretty much had them all (of course that's likely a huge, ignorant overstatement on my part). Plus, now that I've tried (and made) them pan fried (per the Momofuku recipe) these are a poor substitute. They're also impossible to chopstick (is that even a verb?).
The DAsian thinks this dish, gyeran jjim, is better than the comparable Japanese chawanmushi, to which I will disrespectfully disagree. While I liked that it was a little more rustic, it needed some red pepper paste (or something else) to add excitement.
Finally, the dish everyone was waiting for, sannakji, or chopped up live octopus, still moving and sucking:
The wriggling octopus tentacles had very little taste on their own, but drank up the flavors of the sesame oil, garlic and jalapenos. Like the ddukboki, they were also impossible to chopstick. Once the initial rush wore off, as a mature individual, I got as many tentacles to stick to my lips as I could while acting like nothing had happened.
The chicken dish I mentioned earlier is called Dakgalbi cheolpan. It was essentially a bunch of different vegetables plus dark meat chicken and a big heaping of kojuchang.
This is prettier to look at than it tasted. To me, the kochujang overwhelmed the flavor of the dish, although I enjoyed the mishmash of different textures.
Here it is mixed up after cooking over our grill for 30 minutes:
To complement the chicken, we ordered a Korean and Italian American love-child: danhobak heamul jjim, which consisted of various seafoods (shrimp, octopus, calamari) baked in a pumpkin and topped with melted mozzarella cheese.
The smaller octopi, covered with cheese and sauce were the best bites of the night, perfectly cooked and slightly chewy, with pockets of sauce clinging to the curled tentacles. Also nice was discovering odd bits of shrimp and calamari nestled alongside the tender pumpkin pieces. I felt like I ate a ton of this, but, even after a second wind (aided by more watermelon soju) there was still a large pile left over.
Eventually, once more soju and beer could no longer revive our collective appetite, we paid our check (about $50/person) and made our way back to the LIRR (but not before buying another 6 pack for the wait), and slowly our anger at the DAsian subsided as we rode back into Manhattan.
Sik Gaek offers the most sought after type of foodie cred imaginable: the ability to claim to have eaten a sentient, living creature. It's essentially a trump card for when someone tries to beat you on "the weirdest thing I ever ate" argument.
Even so, we only got the Junior Badge, since we didn't even try the whole live octopus dropped in a hot pot, which would test even my limits (I didn't think much could, but that's mostly hubris on my part). Yet my weakness means that I would instantly defer to anyone bold enough to chow down on a whole, live octopus, and award them with an official Law & Food Chutzpah Badge for their bravery. In that case, I might have to eat a live goat just to keep ahead of the pack.
161-29 Crocheron Ave