May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, so to do my small part in celebrating the vast cultural gifts borne by our friends from the East, I'm penning a love letter to beautiful, challenging, and elusive japchae.
I only met japchae a few days back, but it was love at first sight. We crossed paths at the five-month-old Korean BBQ restaurant Tozi. Crossed paths? Who am I kidding! I had been trying to orchestrate a meeting for a while now and recently learned that japchae was a regular there. I sat down and, soon enough, japchae came by, looking stunning. I admit, I was smitten. Japchae was one gorgeous bowl of noodles.
See what I mean?
Before I get too weird here, let me explain. Japchae, for those I've thoroughly confused by this point, is a very old Korean dish featuring a noodle that, as far as I know, is a pretty uncommon sight in Chicago's Korean restaurants: dangmyeon, a glass noodle made from sweet potato starch. Japchae typically consists of a pile of dangmyeon, stir-fried with thinly sliced vegetables like carrots, spinach, and onion, mushrooms, and marinated beef. At Tozi, the japchae ($8.95) rocks all that good stuff and more.
Curly strands of delicately cooked egg crowned the bowl, adding a bright accent of yellow to the already richly colorful tableau. Smoky onion slices; strips of tender carrot, zucchini and green pepper; earthy mushrooms; and juicy spinach were all knotted up in the generous tangle of noodles. The smoky-sweet beef spoke highly of Tozi's BBQ cred. The dangmyeon—sticky, elastic, and extra toothsome—had been thoroughly inoculated in the japchae's unctuous, savory-sweet sauce, made with sesame oil and soy. The sauce bordered on greasy, but the array of veggies went far to balance out the richness. I'm always in search of noodles with character, and these have it. In a bowl packed with divergent flavors, that the noodles stand out is a testament to their big and, dare I say lovable, personality.