ANN ABOUT TOWN: Bulgogi Surprise

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014, 9:34 am
Ann Nichols

It is rare that anyone confuses dining in East Lansing with, say, dining in Chicago. Folks around here don’t say things like, “we ate lunch at a great little deli downtown – which one was it, honey?” We have a handful of beloved eateries that have been around for decades, some chain restaurants, and a small number of newer options that are talked up and checked out by this highly food-savvy community. They are not neighborhood joints tucked away in alleys, nor are they diners on some rural route, famous for their homemade cream pies. They are, by and large, beloved or not, places we’ve heard about, read about, talked about and considered.

Last week, my companion and I had the totally serendipitous experience of finding an East Lansing restaurant we had never heard of. There was no buzz, not a single Epic Dining Tale from a trusted fellow foodie, just a random happening. We wanted to eat lunch within walking distance of home, we didn’t want to eat anyplace we’d been before, and we wanted something locally owned. Our first choice was closed for a private party, the second was just plain closed, and the third was closed for renovations.

We were really cold, and really hungry, and behind us was the door to a place called Bul Go Gi. We’d never been there, and it didn’t look like a chain (it isn’t), so we went inside. The room was clean and modern, with a mix of dark wood and lighter tile and walls. A row of booths along one wall had built-in infrared heating units for tabletop barbecue or hotpot, but since those were full, we sat at a “regular” table. The first look at the menus made it clear that the prices were not “cheap” by East Lansing standards, but solidly within the “moderate” range.

We thought we couldn’t order barbecue or a hotpot because we were not seated at one of the tables with a heating unit, so we ordered Bulgogi for Two. For the uninitiated, Bulgogi is a dish made mostly of very thinly sliced beef marinated in a flavorful mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and other stuff. There are usually onions, maybe onions and scallions, maybe some green peppers and mushrooms. There is some alchemy that occurs during cooking that turns these ingredients into a smoky/tender/crisp/sweet/salty kind of joy.

Despite our deep love for Bulgogi, menu selection was not easy. We were both intrigued by the Kimchi Jun, a flour pancake made with kimchi. We also kind of wanted to try the spicy short rib soup and the pan-fried baby octopus. There were also several Japanese dishes including shumai, tataki and udon noodles. (Vegetarian dishes are not in the cards when I am dining with “Captain Carnivore,” but I did note several veggie choices on the menu, including the noodle dish Jap-che). In the end, we chose Bulgogi because it’s a dish we know well, and a good basis for comparison.

While we waited, our waitperson brought us an order of Gyoza, small, pan-fried pork and vegetable dumplings with a soy-based dipping sauce. We were then surprised to see all of the raw ingredients for Bulgogi brought to the table in a pan set atop a portable grill. Along with the Bulgogi came small side dishes of kimchi, sliced fish cake and a pasta salad. We talked, laughed, and drank hot green tea as we cooked our lunch with chopsticks in a cross between campfire cooking and sword fighting. When it was done, we felt a certain pride in our own fine work as we ate the thinly-sliced, marinated, rib eye steak with its accompanying vegetables.

We had set out to try something new to us, and ended up finding someplace so new to us that we hadn’t known it existed. After all these years, East Lansing can still surprise us.

Bul Go Gi is located at 340 Albert Avenue in East Lansing, on the north side of City Center 1, facing the Michigan Flyer bus stop.


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