Over the years, the building on West Chatham Street in Cary where Golden Pig opened in September has earned something of a reputation as a gastronomic Bermuda Triangle. By my count, eight restaurants have come and gone at that address, a couple of them barely registering a blip on the local foodie radar screen before disappearing.
Song Choe is determined not to let her restaurant become the ninth. A native of Korea who once owned a successful restaurant in Missouri, Choe is bringing all her experience to bear on helping people find Golden Pig in spite of its off-the-beaten-path location. And once they’ve found it, she aims to keep them coming back.
She painted the entire building marigold yellow to make it more visible from the street, and added “Golden Pig Korean Cuisine” in large wooden letters. Above the words, a whimsical cartoon pig puts a smile on your face before you even walk in the door.
Inside, a casual dining room in cheery shades of coral and peach, modestly decorated with Asian prints and folk art, reinforces the mood. You’re warmly greeted by a hostess who may well turn out to be your efficient and eager-to-please server.
Then the process of winning you over kicks into high gear. Soon after you’re seated, your server returns with a complimentary assortment of traditional small dishes called banchan. The offering varies from night to night, but you can count on house-made kimchi. Probably some pickled radish, too, and bean sprouts in toasted sesame oil – and if you’re lucky, you might score a dish of Korean marinated potato salad. “Banchan” translates literally to “side dishes,” but they’re also an irresistible nibble as you down shots of soju while you’re waiting for the food you’ve ordered to arrive. The banchan are freely replenished, so go ahead and indulge.
But don’t overindulge. The menu is loaded with tempting options, and food is served in generous portions. Order hae mul pa jeon from the appetizer list, and you’ll get a savory, lacy-crusted seafood pancake big enough for four to share. Made with an egg batter, nearly an inch thick and riddled with squid, mussels, clams and scallions, it’s accompanied by a soy-sesame dipping sauce.
Korean-style hot wings come close to the mark, but are sometimes marred by a too-thick batter. For my money, mandoo – deep-fried dumplings filled with a a savory blend of minced beef and vegetables – are a more reliable vehicle for delivering the crunchy goods. Or crab rangoon, one of a handful of the menu’s forays outside Korean territory. Unlike the rangoon you find in many Chinese restaurants, these actually contain discernible bits of crabmeat.
Korean barbecue is cooked in the kitchen rather than on grills built into dining room tables, but it’s brought out so quickly that it’s often still sizzling when it arrives. I’m partial to galbi (beef short ribs) and spicy pork, but bulgogi (thinly sliced soy- and garlic-marinated rib-eye) is deservedly popular.
Choe’s rendition of dol sot bibimbap, another Korean classic, is likewise on point. An edible mandala of bright vegetables, mushrooms and rice served in a hot stone bowl, it’s topped with the protein of your choice and a sesame-spangled fried egg. Order it with one of the Korean barbecue meats for the best of both worlds. Spice it up to your liking with a squeeze or three of gochujang (Korean chile paste) from the bottle that’s provided.
Those looking to explore beyond the familiar favorites won’t lack for options, either. Just how far you choose to venture is up to you. The exotic-sounding ja jang myun turns out to be comfort food with a gentle Korean accent: wheat vermicelli noodles in an earthy black bean sauce punctuated with diced pork belly. At the other end of the spectrum is cham pong, a Korean-Chinese fusion of a seafood stew that cranks it up several notches on the fiery-funky scale. And ojing oh bokum lands in the Goldilocks “just right” middle with stir-fried squid and vegetables (onions and carrots, mostly) in a moderately spicy sauce.
Song Choe named her restaurant for the Golden Pig birth year of her grandson, a year that comes around only once every 600 years according to Korean zodiac tradition, and is said to be exceptionally fortuitous. You might say the name is just a little extra insurance for a restaurant that dares to open in a place where so many have failed. A restaurant as good as Golden Pig certainly ought to succeed, but I suppose the insurance couldn’t hurt.
815 W. Chatham St., Cary; 919-650-2720
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casual and cheery with an Asian accent
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: efficient and accommodating
Recommended: hae mul pa jeon, mandoo, dol sot bibimbap, ja jang myun, ojing oh bokum
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Other: beer, wine, sake and soju; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆ Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.