Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fun Playing with Korean Food at Ha Ahn, Cleveland, Ohio

Sometimes, things have a way of working themselves out. My friend and fellow food blogger, Tom, who writes "Exploring Food My Way", wanted to sample some of the steamy goodies I'd recently written about, at Superior Pho in Cleveland Asiatown. We made a date and my mouth was watering for some pho and banh mi! I arrived at 3030 Superior Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44114, and entered the back door - only to see that the gates were closed over Superior Pho. Horrors! A closer examination revealed that Superior Pho is always closed on Monday. Well, what to do? When life gives you steel gates - eat Korean food! Or something like that.

I'd heard about Ha Ahn (Golden Plaza, 3030 Superior Ave., #108, Cleveland, 216-664-1152, no website) from a few food people I trust, and the talk was all good. It certainly looked clean, though not well attended at 12:45pm on a Monday. When Tom arrived, we discussed our options, and decided to walk down the short hall and lunch at Ha Ahn. A wise choice it turned out to be!

As the photo above shows, Ha Ahn is a very simple, small place (housed in the former Golden Bakery). Open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, the restaurant offers lunch specials (Monday-Friday), at $6.95-$7.95. Regular menu items top out around $15. Unfortunately, they didn't have a menu I could take, and the only one I found on-line is a bit truncated. As the photo above shows, Ha Ahn offers photos of most of its menu items on the walls, which is very helpful to the non-Korean diner. Tom did a much better job documenting the menu than I did; I refer you to his blog post if you'd like to see it.

Table condiments include rice wine vinegar (the clear liquid) and soy sauce (dark bottle).

All thoughts of Vietnamese food having vanished from our heads as we smelled the goodness in Ha Ahn's kitchen, we pondered the walls and the paper menu trying to decide what to eat. Everything looked good to us! We decided to start by sharing an order of dumplings.

Chili Dipping Sauce for Dumplings

Mulmandu (Steamed Beef, Tofu, Vegetable Dumplings)

These amazing dumplings are made in-house - the freshness of all of the ingredients, especially the wrappers, made them literally burst with flavor. Add a little of the chili sauce and, well, I could eat a plate of these for lunch and be very happy. The textural contrasts were simply amazing - creamy wrapper, unctuous fillings, crunch from the green vegetables and the cellophane noodles binding the whole package together.

But this was a Korean meal - so not only would we each enjoy an entree - but our dumplings would be followed by banchan, or little palate teasers. I again fell down on the job in photographing Ha Ahn's unique presentation of each diner's banchan in a bento box - but Tom came to my rescue here.

Kim Chee

This fermented cabbage is a staple of every Korean meal. For some reason, it is usually not a favorite of mine - probably the fermented taste. This version, however, was so clean and fresh that I loved it.

Chicken Salad

Yup, you read that correctly. A ubiquitously American-style, mayonaisey chicken salad. Tasty, but it seemed so out of place that we finally asked our server if we were served this in place of something else the restaurant thought we would not like (you'll understand why we thought that when I discuss the entrees) - but she insisted that this banchan was being served to everyone today. Ok.

Chili-Sesame Potato
Caramelized Goju Root (or Gobo)

This was very sweet, almost candied. A little like ginger, but different.

We were already a little full from the dumplings, so we tasted our banchan, but saved plenty to dip in the entrees. Everything but the chicken salad, which just didn't seem to go . . . .

Tom's order was straightforward and easy, once he confirmed that the egg would be runny.

Dolsot Bibimbap (mixed rice served in a hot stone bowl)

This "deluxe" version of Bibimbap is served in a sizzling hot stone bowl, which crisps the rice at the bottom. I had never seen nor tasted this version of the dish before. Tom chose well!

Dolsot Bibimbap With Chili Sauce 

As you can see, Tom did not spare the chili sauce. The chili sauce he received came in a squeeze bottle. I got something completely different with my entree. This was more sweet than hot.

Dolsot Bibimbap Stirred Together

Aha - the reason for wanting a runny egg - the yolk juice mixes into the sauce - heavenly (and yes, Tom let me have a taste).

The story behind my entree is a little more complex. After hemming and hawing over the many fantastic-looking choices - I was drawn to the one I'd never heard of or tasted before, and which didn't translate very well. When I told our server my choice, she tried to talk me out of it, saying that  she didn't think that a non-Korean would like it (that was what made us wonder about the chicken salad banchan). Anyone out there who knows me knows that this is the type of challenge I can seldom resist. I asked the server, do you know why Americans don't like it? She thought it was the texture. I assured her that I would eat the dish, and love it, no matter how unusual the texture. She didn't look convinced - but she took my order to the kitchen!

Kongbiji Jige (Bean-Curd Dregs with Pork and Kimchee in Broth)

What first attracted me to this dish was the name - "Bean-Curd Dregs" brought to my mind the New Orleans staple of "debris" - which are bits of meat that tenderize by long slow cooking in gravy, and are then ladled over a meat sandwich - a wonderful American comfort food. I wondered if the Bean-Curd Dregs were a by-product of making tofu - or similar to the New Orleans idea of letting tofu simmer in broth for a long, slow cook so that it would change it's character and texture to the delicious. I had to find out! And my taste of the Kimchee in the banchan assured me that I'd like the Kimchee as a main player in the dish.

Chili Sauce

It was deja vu all over again - the same sauce we'd been served with our dumplings re-appeared as an accompaniment to my dish.

Another reason I'd selected this dish was that I had primed my taste buds for a soup on this bitterly cold, winter day. This bowl did not disappoint - it came to the table bubbling like a mad scientist's test tubes. As you can see, the "dregs" seem to be bits of tofu (or bean curd) that are crumb-sized and probably take on this texture from being cooked in vigorously boiling soup. The broth, though very tofu-y, was not at all like Japanese Miso. It was a gentle, creamy, perfect accompaniment to the mild bean curd dregs and savory chunks of pork, and the Kimchee spiced things up a little. The dish was accompanied by a bowl of sticky rice. I wasn't sure whether I was supposed to mix the rice in or not, so I put some in. I liked it. I did ask the server about it when she next visited the table, and she said the rice is normally eaten on the side. Oops.

Here, the soup is spiced up a lot - I added the whole ramekin of chili sauce (it wasn't that spicy a chili sauce) and a little soy sauce. This was comfort food supreme. Hot and steamy, porky and creamy, with a little spice and sesame, and crunch from the raw scallions - I'd eat this again any time. Both our server, and the cook, came out to ask how I liked it. I told them the truth - I loved it!

The portions are very generous at Ha Ahn - Tom and I reached maximum capacity, so we each boxed up almost half of our entrees, plus a bunch of banchan. I think our hosts were pleased - I hope so. I should mention that notwithstanding our server's well-intentioned concern with my entree choice, she came to our table prepared to recommend items that are popular with American diners, and service itself was excellent throughout the meal.

And now, the toughest part - at which restaurant to dine when visiting the Golden Plaza? I may have an answer - Superior Pho is closed on Mondays but open on Sundays, and Ha Ahn is closed Sundays but open on Mondays. A solution??? We'll have to see how that works out - but it delights me to have so much fun playing with two very different Asian cuisines in the same building!

Ha Ahn on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. Great to know- everything certainly looks good!