Photo by Anthony Mair Woonam Jung's Spicy wings with pa’chan
Photo by Anthony Mair Woonam Jung's bulgogi
It’s impossible to drive around Vegas and not notice one of the 17 Lee’s Discount Liquor stores, but not everyone is aware that Mr. Lee, the patriarch who started his business from scratch more than 30 years ago, also owns a mini-mall at the intersection of Rainbow Boulevard and Spring Mountain Road.
The mall is anchored by Greenland Market—which has a terrific food court—and Woonam Jung, a spiffy new casual Korean restaurant with a contemporary look rather than traditional. Initially, the Lee family leased the restaurant space to a tenant. But he bugged out in 2010 and left the family, quite by accident, in the restaurant business. There are worse fates. Since that time, they’ve brought a chef over from Korea and hired their own staff. So far, they are managing quite well, thank you.
Korean food is less familiar to most Western palates than the cuisines of its neighbors, China and Japan, but there’s no reason for that to be the case. Personally, I love Korean cuisine for pa’chan, side dishes of spicy marinated grilled meats, broth-y soups, and giant meat-filled dumplings.
I often eat a dish called dolsot bi bim bap—mixed rice, meat and vegetables served in a stone pot—for dinner. Woonam Jung, roughly translated, is “House of the Stone Pot,” but the stone pot dishes just scratch the surface of Woonam Jung’s extensive menu.
Don’t be intimidated by any lack of familiarity: Korean meals aren’t multi-course. Everything, basically, is served at the same time, except for shikkei, a refreshing cold punch accompanied by fresh fruits that is proffered at the end of any meal here.
The pa’chan side dishes are served cold, so they arrive slightly before the hot ones, but they are intended to be eaten with them, not separately. Small plates of spinach with sesame seeds, tiny anchovies, yellow bean sprouts and kimchi—that notoriously stinky fermented cabbage—and two or three others arrive, while your comely server hits the gas under your granite tabletop.
Most Korean 101 diners opt for kalbi, marinated short ribs of beef, or bulgogi, tender sliced and seasoned beef, for the main dish. The beef comes on a platter, a giant one-pound serving in large pounded slabs. The server cuts it with scissors then cooks it for you on the conical metal grill at your table. You decide when the meat is done to your liking.
But a Korean dinner doesn’t have to just be about the ’cue. You could easily dine here and not even get past the appetizers. Haemul pajeon is a delicious green onion and seafood pancake, served on a hot iron plate with a terrific dipping sauce on the side. Braised spicy chicken wings arrive radioactive red and put anything at Wingstop to shame, if you crave heat.
Various fresh fish are grilled, braised or steamed in the kitchen, mackerel, anglerfish and croaker being just three, and there are several stews, such as beef rib soup (galbitang) on the menu, and tteok manduguk, a soup with giant beef and leek-filled dumplings.
But whatever you order, the bilingual staff will help guide you through a meal here and will do so with solicitous charm. If you imbibe, there are a number of interesting ways to wash down a meal here, including OB Korean lager beer, or makkoli, a cloudy rice wine similar to sake.
Woonam Jung might have been an accident, but it seems to be a happy one.