By Steve Alcazari
1:20 PM EDT, October 23, 2012
Pick & Mix
1234 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, (860) 521-1521
Korean culture is taking over. It's spreading in unexpected places around the globe. Some governments in Asia are even trying to push back against its rising dominance. That's according to a recent story in The New Yorker. But it's not the food culture of kimchi and bulgogi. It's the youth culture of Korean popular music known as K pop. Scooter Braun, the evil genius behind Justin Bieber (his manager), recently signed the horsie-riding dance web-video sensation Psy, of the ubiquitous "Gangnam Style." Whether that means the slick and goofy and carefully engineered sheen of K pop becomes the first real bit of Korean culture that many Americans experience is another question. On the food front, I think Korean cuisine remains poised to colonize American taste buds. The quick and easy fast-food-style service at Pick & Mix, a Korean food restaurant with an outpost in West Hartford, suggests that the funky-fresh tang of pickled cabbage is winning over converts.
I ate at Pick & Mix recently. It's a tiny, shoebox-size establishment, with a couple tables and stools along the counter at the front window. At the back of the restaurant are rows of tubs of chopped vegetables, toppings and extras that you can hover over and select while one of the staff mixes your choices into a hot stone bowl for bibimbap, a signature Korean dish. This choose-your-own-adventure approach to Korean food is genius, similar to the way that places like Subway and Moe's Southwest have rejiggered subs and burritos for mass appeal and maximum quickness. Korean cuisine — at first glance — doesn't really seem to lend itself to this kind of point-and-click model; most Korean meals start with panchan, a bunch of small dishes of pickles and vegetables and other salty and zingy treats. It's sort of the exact opposite of food to take on the go. But Pick & Mix streamlines the idea, serving some spicy kimchi and some mild miso soup with your order, easing up on the potential clutter, while still offering a taste of the real thing. (Whoever can pull this same trick off with Indian food is bound to be a big winner in the 21st Century American fast food game.)
For the bibimbap, you choose your base, which can be white or brown rice or sweet potato noodles. Then you select the vegetables you want on top — carrots, mung bean sprouts, radish, mushrooms, lettuce, zucchini, broccoli, red pepper, red cabbage, onion and green pepper. If you want, they'll crack a raw egg into the mix, which will quickly become a scrambled egg as it's cooked by the heat of the bowl and surrounding ingredients. Then you pick your protein (beef, pork, spicy chicken or tofu). You top it all off with a sauce — hot pepper, soy, teriyaki or sesame. You can see how the Pick & Mix name is pretty much truth in advertising.
Pick & Mix also serves chicken wings, both standard style and Korean-style, which are quite a bit hotter. An order of the pork barbecue drove home just why Korean barbecue is fast becoming a popular filling for cross-cultural tacos: the curls of slightly fatty, but extra spicy and sweet pork almost beg for a few shreds of crisp lettuce or cabbage and the bright tang of hot sauce. Plentiful slices of grilled onions, scallions and peppers, all scorching on a sizzling cast-iron serving plate, delivered more earthy flavors and made the dish capable of passing for a Korean twist on pork fajitas.
Served in a hot stone bowl, an order of tofu over veggies and brown rice was artfully criss-crossed with liberal squirts of brick-red hot pepper sauce, which added some heat, but didn't make it as hot as the barbecued pork.
There are several Korean restaurants in the Hartford area. Many of them also serve a bit of Japanese food. Pick & Mix focuses the menu, applying — you could say — the same kind of consumer logic to Korean food and popular tastes as the knowing producers of K pop do to dance music. Expect to hear more about this, and expect America's taste for Korean food to catch up with its taste for Korean pop.
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