It’s impossible to say whether it was the ibuprofen, the Diet Pepsis or the Korean food that soothed the painful effects suffered from a late night at the Lipstick Lounge. But after downing a couple of beers at the East Nashville bar—and a shot called a Whoop-ti-doo—we were in need of an antidote. Luckily, a trip to Antioch the next day offered hope for a cure: the menu at Hai Woon Dai Korean restaurant promised that a dish called ugoji haejangguk would “relieve the hangover.”
Like Mexican restaurants on Nolensville Road and Vietnamese restaurants on Charlotte Pike, Korean restaurants and markets are following the path of immigrants into Nashville. The Korean population has settled largely in L.A., or Lower Antioch, just a few miles southeast of the city off I-24. Though several Korean restaurants in other parts of town preceded them—most notably Koreana in Madison—there are two recent arrivals on Antioch Pike. So Gung Dong, a.k.a. Tofu House, has been open about a year, specializing in tofu soups. The menu is not easily accessed by non-Asians; the English transliterations simply offer the name of the dish—nangmyun, for instance—with no further elaboration.
Hai Woon Dai numbers its dishes, thus avoiding the clumsy stumble over the pronunciation of unfamiliar words, and under each name is a one-sentence description. Though the ugoji haejangguk (No. 19) promises curative powers, most tell just enough to get a general idea of what you will be served: gamja tang, for example, consists of sliced potatoes with pork and vegetables in pork bone broth.
Owners Yun and Jung Choo are quite familiar to local diners thanks to their other restaurant, Samuri Sushi on Elliston Place, where Yun has built a near cult-like following for his unique and beautifully designed rolls. In fact, he and his wife are Korean, and they have long wanted to open a Korean restaurant; this January, they did, installing Jung’s mother, a 20-year veteran of professional kitchens, as chef.
The interior of Hai Woon Dai is a work in progress, and the current status would most generously be described as Spartan; the nearly bare white-painted walls almost glare with the reflection of fluorescent lighting. Tables, individually placed in booth-like enclosures, are likewise unadorned. Three are equipped with a bware, the grill top used for Korean barbecue. Our party wasn’t offered that option; perhaps experience is required, as an adjacent table of Koreans had put theirs to good use.
Communication at Hai Woon Dai is challenging, Jung admits in very halting English, noting that she is actively looking for some bilingual servers, or ones at least semi-proficient in English. We communicated our needs via the smiling-and-pointing system, which worked just fine.
Minimal place settings include a pair of chopsticks, a paper napkin and a long-handled metal spoon known as a sujeo, similar to an iced tea spoon, but with a larger bowl. Chopsticks are used for side dishes and stir-fry plates, the spoon for soups and rice—in Korea, it’s considered bad form to eat rice with chopsticks.
One of the most distinctive, and most enjoyable, practices of Korean dining is the custom of banchan, complimentary side dishes accompanied by individual bowls of rice. The number you receive seems to depend on what you order. On our first visit, our party of three got three; on my later quest for a hangover cure, six showed up. The traditional Korean dish kimchi, a fermented and spiced concoction generally identified with Chinese cabbage, is likely to be among the banchan that show up at the beginning of your meal. The dish carries so much cultural weight that there is a Kimchi Museum in Seoul that documents 187 varieties. As revered as kimchi is among Asian peoples, Americans frequently turn up their noses at the sight and the smell, but Hai Woon Dai’s version is milder and less garlic-laden than many. The restaurant also serves a variation based on radish, called kaktugi. Particularly tasty banchan were the teensy dried fish in a red sauce, slices of fish cake with onion in a sweet soy sauce, spinach cooked with sesame oil, and sautéed seaweed.
Thanks to the banchan, there is no need for appetizers on a Korean menu, but a dish suitable for sharing is the not-to-be-missed haemul pajun, a plate-sized pancake made of flour and eggs, with green onion, shrimp and squid, pan-fried to crisp the exterior. Similar to the Vietnamese banh xeo, it is larger and puffier, precut into small slices, to be dipped in a soy-garlic sauce.
Three Korean barbecue items lead the menu; traditionally, raw, bite-size pieces of meat would be brought to the table for diners to cook on the bware, then rolled up in lettuce leaves and eaten. At Hai Woon Dai, the bulgogi—prime beef marinated in sweet soy sauce—was brought to us already cooked. It was fine, but minus the traditional method, I would opt for trying other items on the lengthy menu. Eight, including the agu jim (large chunks of monkfish with bean sprouts steamed in thick, spicy sauce) and haemul jungol (assorted fresh seafood, crab and Asian vegetables in hot and spicy broth), are listed as chef’s specials and are intended (and priced) for sharing by two people.
There are several stir-fry options. We loved the ojingo bokgum, chewy strips of squid cooked in a spicy red sauce, and an order of bibimbap should be required. A one-bowl meal central to Korean cuisine, it’s traditionally a layered construction of rice, strips of beef and vegetables with a fried egg on top, though Hai Woon Dai’s version is vegetarian. Squirt in some of the hot chili paste from the squeeze bottle that accompanies it, then mix it all up.
Soups and broths come with everything from “small intestine of cattle” to squid, pork belly, seafood and bean curd. Interestingly, there is no poultry on the menu. As for the hangover cure, the language barrier did not permit an explanation of the basis for the claim, but apparently, it has much to do with the generous amount of red pepper floating about on the surface of the broth, which is delicately flavored by cabbage leaves cooked to a melt-away softness and beef short rib bones that still carry a bit of meat.
So did the small black pot of still-boiling ugoji haejangguk deliver on its promise? Well, the burn in my throat certainly took my mind off the ache in my head, and I think I sweated out whatever alcohol was still in my system. The next time I whoop-ti-doo instead of whoop-ti-don’t, I know where to seek relief. Fans of Korean food, or those curious to sample an alternative to Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai, will find it done authentically at Hai Woon Dai.