Just the sight of the hellishly red noodle dish called nakjikuksu at Myung Ga Tofu & Barbecue in Weston is enough to send spicephobic eaters into heat stroke. The pencil-thick udon noodles are napped in a chili sauce so intensely red, it looks like it was painted into existence by a Korean kid with a magic marker and a masochistic streak a mile wide. Furthering the infernal illusion is the sizzling iron skillet the noodles come on, which causes the noodles to pop and hiss angrily as you snatch them up with your wooden chopsticks.
I was ready to burn my mouth off eating the nakjikuksu at Myung Ga. But when I took a bite of the noodles tossed with onions, carrots, and pieces of tender octopus, I realized that it wasn't actually as spicy as it looked. Instead, the thick and creamy udon noodles managed to cool my mouth off almost as soon as I bit into them. I passed a bite to my fiancée, Danielle, to see if she agreed. "It's actually the perfect level of heat," she said in surprise. She was right. Sure, the chili sauce was hot, but it was also comforting and hearty, like some oddly Asian version of spaghetti Bolognese.
Korean food is gaining in popularity lately, thanks to restaurants and food trucks that have fused the country's bold flavors with familiar techniques. One Fort Lauderdale food cart, Nacho Bizness, even sells a Korean-inspired burrito that's loaded with cucumber, chili sauce, and pieces of marinated barbecue beef. Myung Ga Tofu & Barbecue, hidden away in a Weston strip mall, may not be that high on the trendy radar yet. But American eaters looking for warm, intense flavors (with or without the spice) will find a whole lot to like.
Take the restaurant's tofu steak ($6.95). Forget about the stuff you'll find bathing in soggy packages at your local supermarket. At Myung Ga, the tofu is made in-house, and it shows. The results taste smoother and sweeter than anything you'll find in a grocery store. To make the tofu steak, Myung Ga's chefs gently dip squares of the homemade tofu in egg batter containing carrots, onion, and scallions. Then they pan-fry it till it's crisp and brown and serve it with a sesame and soy dipping sauce that's so good, you'll want to tip back the bowl when you're done. The squares of "steak" themselves are like the world's greatest Pringle — once you pop, you can't stop.
Take a look around Myung Ga and you'll see comfort is a big theme. The warm, wood-toned restaurant is filled with Korean families passing along fajita-like platters of bulgoki (spicy, thin-shredded pork) and vegetable-filled pancakes the size of Frisbees. Unlike "small plates" restaurants where people share little bites, sharing huge plates seems pretty much a necessity here. Not only are the portion sizes huge but Myung Ga provides a wide array of banchan — small bowls of vegetables like kimchi or sesame-dressed bean sprouts — with each meal. These banchan are meant to be served as accompaniments to each dish, but they also create a lavish spread on each table. All the passing of dishes and sharing of plates reminded me of the packed tables my family sits in front of during holidays. My favorite of the banchan, a potato salad made sweet with raisins and apples, was surprisingly familiar too. Not to mention the creamy mayo managed to cool off any heat still lingering after that delicious udon.
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Unlike most Korean barbecue restaurants, Myung Ga doesn't have do-it-yourself grills at each table. Instead, the barbecue items like marinated beef galbi (short ribs) or whole mackerel are prepared in the kitchen and come to the table on sizzling platters. Most of these options are priced in the teens, but the big portions make it worth the price.
Since we'd already ordered a few different dishes, we asked our waiter if the kitchen would do half portions of the barbecue items. He pointed us toward an appetizer-sized order of sae woo gooi ($9.95), plump and juicy shrimp glazed with the same sort of barbecue sauce that comes on Korean short ribs. For those unfamiliar, the sauce tastes a little bit like Japanese teriyaki, but sweeter, with a more intense garlic flavor. On the shrimp, it was dynamite.
As with the banchan, each person at the table gets complimentary barley tea as well as little metal tins full of rice with each meal. We wanted to try some of the stir-fried rice Myung Ga makes, so we ordered the bokeumbab ($7.95), which comes with a fried egg on top. If you've ever tried the popular Korean rice dish bibimbap, this version is similar. The only difference is the buttery rice already has bits of carrot, shiitake mushroom, and squash mixed in rather than requiring you to mix the ingredients in a hot stone bowl yourself (the restaurant serves that style of rice too, if you like).
If the hot stone rice bowls and sizzling noodle dishes didn't warm you enough, you can also try the jigae, a rustic Korean soup made with miso and a variety of proteins, from pork to shellfish to tofu. Be sure to tell the waiter how spicy you want it (a scale of one to five is provided on the menu). The warm feeling will linger long after your meal at Myung Ga is over.