South Plainfield, NJ 07080
- Cost: $$
- Alcohol: BYO
- Parking: Public Lot
March 25, 2011
South Plainfield’s Kimchi Hana serves some of the best Korean food in New Jersey, but it presents an ethnic dining dilemma: is the food worth it if you don’t speak the language and the restaurant makes little effort to attract (or keep) customers unfamiliar with the cuisine?
Tucked into a corner of the Middlesex Mall (strip mall), the place almost looked closed from the outside. Open the door, however, and brace yourself for a steaming woosh of meat infused wind rushing through your hair into the parking lot. The line waiting for a grill-at-your-table table to open up, and the smell tip you off to excellent Korean BBQ. One of the best tips from Yelp: “You WILL end up smelling like bbq even if you’re not at a table with a grill. It’s inevitable so plan ahead.” Indeed. Wear something that you don’t mind smelling like smoke for the rest of the evening. The restaurant is much bigger than it looks form the outside. Beyond the entranceway with Korean-language flyers and the fish tank (no surprise!), there are tables with grills, tables without grills, a sushi bar, and three private alcoves with sunken tables – no shoes allowed – behind paper screens.
Kimchi Hana’s food is excellent. Banchan – the small plates set out for sharing – includes a wonderfully flavored Kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage), surprisingly sweet potatoes (Gamja Jorim), mushroom salad, and some other interesting pickled vegetables. The green pepper pancake is one of the best Asian pancakes we’ve had – spicy, but not greasy. We ordered the grilled beef short ribs (Galbi) and Bulgogi (marinated beef strips). The short ribs are tender and delicious; the bulgogi had just the right amount of sweetness. A fish soup with chunks of cod and tofu is surprisingly good. (But watch out for the fish bones.) Even the Japanese sushi is pretty good.
So the food is definitely worth a trip to Kimchi Hana. Unfortunately, once you’re at the restaurant, getting to actually eat the food can be a bumpy ride if you don’t speak Korean and you don’t know exactly what you want. The wait for a table at dinnertime on a Saturday is frantic. The hostess asks if you want a table with a grill or without, but then gives no indication how long the wait is for either. I was afraid to grab a bottle at the liquor store next store for fear of losing our place in line. We asked for a table with a grill (to grill our own meat), and thought we got one, until the harried server told us after we had been seated that the grill wasn’t working. OK, no problem. But then we had barely any time to decipher the menu, which has English translations, before the waitress needed our order. A few basic questions didn’t quite translate. Fortunately, we’ve had Korean BBQ before, so we managed. Someone trying Korean food for the first time might have difficulty here. Not until we figured out the busboy spoke Spanish, halfway through our meal, were we able to successfully order -in Spanish- the hot green tea we saw ordered by other, Korean-speaking, tables.
On food alone, Kimchi Hana would be a favorite New Jersey Korean so far. Based on the overall experience, though, there must be better.