Growing up as a baby boomer, the exciting new trend was convenience foods. Five-course TV dinners (including a warm mini brownie) were exceedingly popular and any “foreign” cuisine was conveniently canned to minimize time in the kitchen for harried parents, inevitably mothers. As a undiscriminating kid, I loved Chef Boyardee ravioli, which reduces a great Italian dish to baby food. Asian cuisine meant Chinese in cans by Chun King. There was no acknowledgement of any regional diversity from the other side of the world. No one even dreamt of sushi, much less Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino or Korean dishes.
Flash forward to 2021 and now we can tour much of Asia during the pandemic through takeout from chefs more than happy to share a taste of their heritage. Food is always a reflection of culture and every society has iconic dishes that have come to represent each nation for the American palate. Even diners without adventuresome tastes usually appreciate the comfort food from countries far distant from our own. But let us not mistake microwave ramen for Būya or Ichicoro.
Anju St. Pete
2827 16th St., N., St. Pete
Entrées $11-$17.50; sides $3-$5; alcohol $4- $14; no dessert
Many of these chefs serve from food trucks, which offer an easier and more affordable way to start a business and find a hungry clientele. Korean born chef Mee Ae Wolney graduated from culinary school in Boulder, and worked in a variety of restaurants serving Euro-American food before she and her husband Daniel decided to move to St. Petersburg and get back to her roots. Their operation grew from a 12-foot trailer in 2014 to a handsome, modern, gastrotruck which thrived doing events, weddings and festivals.
And then came the pandemic and they faced a crossroads as their established business model disappeared. When the retail space on 16th Street became available, they made the leap to takeout from a brick and mortar location last October. The menu is still focused on the popular comfort food options that were so successful for the gastrotruck.
“Anju” is the Korean word for salty, crunchy or spicy food that pairs well with beer or soju, a distilled rice (or sometimes potato) spirit. Soju (~20% ABV) is between wine (~13%) and vodka (~40%) on the alcohol scale, and much stronger than beer, which rarely hits 6%.
Chef Wolney has two “signature dishes,” K.F.C. (Korean fried chicken) and the Bap Bowl (bibimbap). The juicy, hand cut and battered chicken is available as wings or as K-Pops (bites) tossed in one of two signature sauces, soy garlic or St. Pete heat, with a peanut garnish and a mound of steamed, sticky rice.
I ordered the K-pops, which are essentially upscale nuggets, with the sauce on the side. Like great French fries, they’re twice cooked—first to cook them through at a lower temperature, then at a high temp for crispness. What you notice right away is the potato starch, rather than an all flour batter. If you’ve had Chinese sweet and sour pork, you’ll recognize the flavor difference. The coating is lighter and crisper. Despite not being as heavily seasoned as the Colonel’s secret KFC, the bites are juicy and full of flavor. I devoured them. And, they also have a tofu version.
The Bap Bowl is traditional Korean bibimbap, or mixed rice. A hearty, spicy combo with wafer thin grilled marinated ribeye (bulgogi) plus julienned Asian veggies for flavor, color and contrasting texture (zucchini, bean sprouts, carrots), and importantly, kimchi. It’s made by the same fermentation process that gives us sauerkraut or dill pickles. And it serves the same purpose to balance out fat in dishes and give them liveliness on the palate. Kimchi has really become a popular staple in the U.S., with many home chefs creating DIY versions. It’s a typically Korean condiment, usually cabbage-based and, while pickled, it retains crunch that most sauerkraut lacks. And the final touch is an over easy egg. Then, you mix it up to combine with toasted sesame oil and a mild, medium, or hot sauce, depending on your heat preferences. It’s a delicious mélange of flavor and texture that’s totally satisfying.
The chicken and veggie spring rolls are golden and crisp; they’re a manageable size (like a fat cigar) with a tangy, sweet chili sauce. The Anju Combo offers the best of both worlds with bulgogi beef and some fried chicken K-Pops with sticky steamed rice, and a lightly spicy Korean slaw.
Two popular treats with a cult following from the food truck are crispy tater tot concoctions. K-Town tops the tots with beef bulgogi, grilled kimchi, melted mozzarella and provolone cheeses, thinly sliced fresh scallions, crushed peanut and the St. Pete heat sauce. Or you can mix it up with Osaka, Japanese inspired crispy taters seasoned with Japanese mayo and sweet BBQ sauce, aonori (seaweed), bonito (tuna flakes), bacon, scallions and pickled red ginger.
The new dining room is ready for socially distanced patrons post vaccine. All the staff are masked and concerned for your safety. Chef Wolney’s motto is “Made with Love in St. Pete.” Whether you opt for curbside pickup or delivery, you can be sure that you’re in for a treat with fresh ingredients instead of cans. Asian cuisine is a wonderful diverse world which leaves Chun King way back in the rear view mirror. So try some bibimbap and be transported.
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