Now is not the time to be sneezing, coughing or even sniffling in public. As we Burquenos collectively brace ourselves for the coming months of freezing temps, it’s hard not to feel the weight of manifold forces beyond cold weather making for an extra bitter winter. With this in mind, I weighed several options for this week’s review before settling on a personal favorite that I feel, down to my marrow, has both nourished my stressed-out amygdala and fortified my immune system. Mind you, these claims have not been verified by any medical professionals.
At the most southern tip of the Korean peninsula the latitude lies right around 35N—which happens to be just about where Albuquerque lies as well. My point being that Koreans are no strangers to cold weather and have therefore developed dishes to stave off both shivers and sickness. Admittedly, Albuquerque does not boast a particularly sizable Korean-American community; but that community is quite vibrant, as anyone who showed up to last year’s (pre-COVID) packed-to-the-rafters Kimchi Festival could tell you. Even so, over the years I have only located three solid Ko eateries, and they are all in the back of small groceries. A-Ri-Rang on Eubank is my go-to for bibimbap, a colorful rice dish topped with an assortment of vegetables both fresh and preserved, some protein and gochujang chile paste that, despite being arrayed in a beautiful spread, is then all mixed and mashed up before consuming. For jajangmyeon, an insanely rich ’n’ savory preserved black bean-topped noodle plate, I tend to go with Kim’s Market on Morris. And then there is A-1 Oriental Market, which as far as I am concerned, dominates the Korean soup and stew game here in town.
Located in a strip mall off the NE corner of Montgomery and San Pedro, A-1 had escaped my gaze for far too long. Perhaps that’s because its signage is somewhat obscured by HoHo’s? Or because I usually am single-mindedly gunning for Alquds Mediterranean Grill and their highly addictive shawarma and Arabic coffee whenever I’m near this intersection? Still, better late than never; it was immediately obvious that A-1 would not let me down. The packed aisles are well organized, with a wide range of goods and foodstuffs from both Korea and Japan. While waiting for my order, I spotted all manner of delicious things to stock up on. Flats of passion-orange-guava drink from Hawaii, three-kilo tubs of gochujang chile paste, toddler-sized bags of lightly sweetened Korean rice snacks and a wide variety of higher-end rice options had me feeling like I was in the Costco of my dreams.
My girlfriend, Ray Kim, is Korean-American, and while she is sweet and nurturing in numerous ways, she can be a harsh critic when it comes to the food she was raised on. We started off with some apps. The seafood and green onion pancake ($6) was hefty and gelatinous in a way similar to the oyster pancakes popular in varied forms across much of E. Asia. Some may have a hard time with this texture, but I thought it worked well with the generous helping of mussels, squid and clams inside. Ray enjoyed the pancake but said that her mom, who just-so-happens to be a professional personal chef and nutritionist, makes hers a bit crispier. Both the fried dumplings ($5) and kimbap (“Korean sushi roll”—$6) were excellent and benefitted from a somewhat sweet and fishy combo. I thought the kimbap might be the only veg-friendly item on the menu but discovered that it contained a bit of fishcake.
Appetites whetted, we were ready to move on to our main courses. Wishing I had a crisp Hitte or Max brand Ko beer, or perhaps even some Soju (A-1 does not have a beer or liquor license), I cracked the lid of the spicy short-rib beef soup ($10). The smell alone was soul-warming. The meat that had fallen off the short-ribs was delicious and, coupled with roasted garlic, provided the broth with loads of umami. It was intensely spicy and cleared my nasal passages, allowing me to better enjoy its aromas and flavors. Ray had ordered a childhood favorite, seolleongtang, or oxbone soup ($11), which achieves a milky appearance from slow cooking ox shanks. After the first sip, she closed her eyes and let out a series of satisfied murmurs. Ray says that when she was a little kid in L.A.’s sprawling Koreatown her mom and aunties would bring her to a soup house that specialized in this dish. And at just 4 years of age, she earned the nickname “double meat” from the waitstaff for her insatiable appetite. However, this was the first time she’d ever slurped this sultry, collagen-rich broth down with freezing temps outside, and she honestly carried a dazed and fully satiated grin for the rest of the night.
Even though I’d exhausted my weekly review stipend from The Paper., we came back to A-1 for another round just a few nights later. While tempted to just order the same hard-hitting soups, we knew that we had to dig deeper into the menu. This time we settled on the spicy beef soup ($11) and the grilled mackerel ($10). I also was curious about how Korean pear slices were incorporated into the cold buckwheat noodles ($10) but was informed that this was not on offer as it is, fittingly, more of a summertime dish.
Blowing away my expectations, the spicy beef soup was even better suited to the freezing weather than the short-rib variety had been. The broth had a profondo rosso to it that honestly hit many of the same notes as a good local red chile. In fact, it conjured up a memory of living in Australia and, during stretches of homesickness, making red chile sauces and stews out of Korean chile powder—which, no lie, works out better than some N.M.-grown red chile powders. The addition of royal fern provides a nice vegetal counterpoint in this meaty soup and what is probably a new culinary experience for most readers.
The mackerel, while also perhaps more of a summer dish, was flaky with a perfectly crunchy skin. We devoured it in no time flat. And A-1’s kimchi, in its radish, cucumber and cabbage iterations, are all deliciously funky-yet-bright. The standard cabbage had a good bit of sweetness to it, reminding me of the style popular at plate-lunch spots in Honolulu. It worked in perfect tandem with the saltiness of the mackerel. The cucumber was our favorite of the three, however, as it offset the heaviness of these meaty soups.
While The Paper. cannot claim that A-1’s soups contain magical healing properties, I urge you all to hit them up and see if they don’t fortify you through these winter months ahead. Once you try any one of them you will be fiending for more on the regular.