Restaurant Review: Dae Bak menu delights, but could use some beefing up!
Dae Bak is a new Korean restaurant located on the second floor in the less than-a-year-old, very trendy Chinatown Square food court/entertainment complex in the heart of Philly’s China Town District. We arrived around 8:45pm for dinner, and were promptly greeted by management. Our waitress then immediately seated us, but unfortunately, did not introduce herself. She mentioned that while they did not have a drink menu (which we found to be slightly strange- what restaurant doesn’t have a drink menu?) but that they were serving some Korean cocktails, and also had a Korean bottled beer available. Knowing how spicy some Korean food can be, we opted for the beers to wash everything down and put out the potential fire.
As soon as we put our drink order in, another waitress brought us some traditional Korean banchan, or small dishes to whet our appetite. These are usually small, cold bites, consisting of items such as kimchi, pickled sauteed veggies, stir fried veggies seasoned with soy or fish sauce, among others. Ours also had a creamy potato salad that was a perfect compliment to the spicy peppers siting in a pool of chili oil. She also brought out a large plastic water pitcher that looked like a giant child’s “sippy cup.” It also had various logos and small pieces of paper taped to it. We felt that the closed “igloo” like water pitchers did not match the “higher end” look and appeal the restaurant was going for with the rest of the decor and table settings, which are lovely.
We had a few moments to look over the menu, the manager approached us again and asked if we needed any help with the menu, and asked if we had eaten Korean food before. We mentioned that we were big fans of Korean BBQ, but had never dined at a more traditional restaurant, such as Dae Bak. He mentioned that the stews were very popular, and a very traditional type of dish. I have to admit, my date and I were eyeing up the short ribs, and chicken bim bim bap, because the idea of slurping down soup on a hot Friday night in August did not sound entirely appealing, especially because I had curled my hair that evening and curls and soup steam do not mix. However, the manager seemed insistent that we order the soup as well. While waiting for our food and finishing our beer (and waiting for the waitress to come ask us if we’d like another round) we noticed that while the restaurant is on the smaller side, there was a nice crowd, and most tables (including the ones along the windows with a great view of Race street) were filled. There was a nice mixed group, and a decent amount of Korean Americans dining there (which I always find to be a good sign!)
People watching makes me thirsty, and I tried to flag down our waitress a few times to request more Mekchu (beer,) but was unsuccessful. Finally, my dining partner was able to catch her attention while she bused another table behind me. She brought us two more beers, and then our first two dishes arrived: the chicken bim bim bap, and the short ribs. We were confused at first when the short ribs arrived, because they did not come with lettuce to wrap the meat, as the manager had mentioned to us. Instead, they were served on a bed of stir fried onions on a skillet like you would get your fajitas on at an On the Border. The meat was marinated and sweet and garlicky , and the caramelized onions were delicious. My only complaint is that with Korean short ribs, you get a lot of bone, and not a lot of meat, so it would have been nice to have a slightly larger portion of meat, or a more substantial veggie or something on the side. The bim bim bap was served in a stone bowl, with a delicious fresh cracked egg on top. The key is to break the egg and mix the yolk with the rice while everything is still piping hot to slightly scramble it. The bowl is so hot that a rice “crust” actually forms on the bottom creating a crispy, crunchy texture that is amazing. The bim bim bap is served with a fiery red sauce that is great when mixed with the rice, chicken and veggies, which were sweet and smokey, and also perfectly cooked. The chicken was tender and juicy, though again, I wish there had been more of the protein in the bowl. We didn’t mind because we were sharing a few dishes, but if I had ordered any of these dishes alone, I would have left slightly disappointing, and probably still a little hungry, but with 6 more eateries downstairs AND a hand-rolled Ice Cream store, maybe that’s the idea?
Observing the waitresses, they were all very pleasant, but it was obvious they were new, and could benefit from some training. The staff all seemed young, including the manager, who was joking and playing around with several male and female employees during our dinner, and even stopped to take a drink and cheers/toast with some patrons (to the future success of Dae Bak?) After a little while our stew came out (tofu and cod) and the broth was spicy, fishy, and definitely had the whole umami thing going on.
Caution: anyone who orders a stew or soup with fish, know that there is a strong likelihood that it will contain skin and bones.
It was a little bit of a challenge to enjoy the silky deliciousness of the broth, while stopping every bite to pick out the fish bones. Traditional? Yup. Rustic? Absolutely. I just wish there had been maybe a warning or disclaimer. This stew would probably be dangerous to children and older folks. Consider yourself warned, or bring a pocket sized strainer when you go.
We waited again for the waitress to stop by so we could get another beer, but sadly, she did not. I asked a male employee where the restroom was and he mentioned it was located downstairs. This was probably the biggest issue I had that night- standing in line, competing with patrons from multiple other food counters, for two bathrooms= not my idea of a good time. For the amount of money you will wind up spending at a place like Dae Bak, you want to be able to scootch to the ladies room in between courses in peace to check if you have an kimchi in your teeth, without fighting the hoards of teenagers who just got done having an ice cream fight out front.
Overall the food was very good, everything was tasty and prepared well. I think at $20+ for some of these entrees, they might want to include a side or two or beef up their protein per dish ( see what I did there.) For $20 we could go next store to Dim Sum Garden and get a scallion pancake, 2 orders of soup dumplings, and some Chinese broccoli (and still have some change left over for rolled ice cream. That aside, I think once they work their kinks out a bit, and their waitresses get a little more comfortable serving and checking on diners, they will absolutely reach their potential, and blossom into the Korean restaurant China Town didn’t know it needed.
1016 Race St, Philadelphia, PA 19107