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Thu April 12, 2012
Where Y'Eat: Where Kimchi Is King
The barroom setting and vegan approach is a little unorthodox, but the Korean flavors at the Wandering Buddha are easy to love.
With so few local opportunities to sate the craving, New Orleanians with a taste for Korean food perk up at the mere whiff of kimchi. Sometimes, we might find it buried at the back of a conventional Chinese restaurant menu or maybe even worked into the globetrotting repertoire of an ambitious fine-dining restaurant. So when word got around that a young couple was serving an entire menu of Korean food in New Orleans – and until midnight, no less – it hardly mattered that the format was a bit unorthodox.
The Wandering Buddha, as this eatery is called, operates from a tiny kitchen at the rear of the Hi-Ho Lounge, a bar, music venue and sometime theatre space along St. Claude Avenue in the St. Roch neighborhood. Dinner is served at the bar by the beer taps, or in an ersatz patio out back or from a take-out window trimmed with Christmas lights. All of the food here is Korean, and all of it is vegan.
Vegans and vegetarians may well delight over a whole menu tailored to their diet, even if this one isn’t the longest menu. But for an omnivore like me, the most exciting part of the Wandering Buddha is its diligent approach to Korean flavors. Though meatless, the dishes should please anyone interested in robustly spicy Far Eastern cuisine.
These are family recipes passed down through a South Korean grandmother to Colleen Cronin, who runs the Wandering Buddha with her partner Christion Troxell. Though they waded into the venture with a once-a-week pop-up format, they quickly went professional and expanded to full time hours. You may be dining in mixed company in this St. Claude Avenue barroom, but they do their best to make it feel like a restaurant. Your chopsticks are tightly bound in napkins, your food arrives promptly and attractively plated and even the bill is presented in a proper check holder.
Dumplings filled with glass noodles and tofu are a safe start, as inviting and familiar as any fried snack, and so are the thin, chewy scallion pancakes, laced with dark griddle marks. Once you have your bearings, try the ssambap, a hash of diced tofu balanced on long shafts of crisp lettuce and eaten by hand in the manner of hotdogs.
There are just five entrees, though they share so many of the same ingredients that choosing between them can boil down to picking your starch. In one dish, discreet portions of spicy cucumbers, spinach and kimchi escort planks of tofu and in another a similar garnish array orbits around cold buckwheat noodles. My favorite dish here is made with thick, chewy, gnocchi-like rice pasta under a pile of vegetables and a flurry of sesame seeds.
Spicy barbecue may be Korea’s best-known culinary export, but as the Wandering Buddha demonstrates, a vegetarian meal can sharpen some of this cuisine’s most distinguishing features. It better shows the dynamic contrasts of fresh vegetables and the intense fermented, pickled and marinated garnishes, sauces and sides that give the cuisine its punch. At the Wandering Buddha, these elements are prepared in-house, and the effort pays off. The kimchi is hot enough to bring a tear to your eye, but since you’re dining in a barroom you should have no trouble washing it down.
The Wandering Buddha
2239 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans