Location: 3201 Millers Run Road, Cecil. 412-220-7170
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4-7; entrees $5-16
Fare: Authentic homestyle Korean
Atmosphere: A little bit of Seoul in Cecil
Pittsburgh prides itself on being a friendly, welcoming city of immigrants. But as non-natives, we have felt the insular side of a city that finished making its friends in high school. It's got to be tough for foreign-born residents who face very real language and cultural barriers here, especially those outside the relatively cosmopolitan East End, with its international students and miniature ethnic enclaves.
For these reasons and more, we were surprised to hear about a new Korean restaurant in Cecil, a tiny town just across the county line from Bridgeville. The forgotten sister of Asian cuisines, Korean restaurants in Pittsburgh usually supplement their less-familiar offerings with sushi, but we doubted that was the key to success in semi-rural Washington County.
We were right not to expect sushi, but when we walked in, Angelique got a big hit of nostalgia for the two years she lived in Japan. The little restaurant, with just a couple of tables and a glossy counter that overlooks the tiny kitchen, is exactly the sort of jewel box that you can find in small towns there.
Golden Pig's owner, cook and hostess is Yong Kwon, a friendly, garrulous grandmother who moved to the area to live near her son. When she went out to look for a job, she found a "For Rent" sign instead, on an empty storefront in a little building across the creek from a local soccer field. Why not open a restaurant?
Kwon describes her cooking as home-style, exactly how she made things for her family when her son was growing up. That may be true, but it would be a mistake to take "home-style" to mean plain or unsophisticated. Kwon makes her own chili sauce and a variety of kimchis, or spicy pickled vegetables, and will expound about the comparative virtues of sesame seeds here, in China and back home in Korea. She cares about food, and it shows in how she talks about it -- as well as in how she prepares it.
The menu is brief and manageable, although it will soon grow to meet the demand of her loyal customers. We began with man-du, beef and vegetable dumplings noted as a favorite of American military personnel stationed in Korea, and gimbop, sushi-like rolls made with cooked vegetables (a meat version is also available). The man-du had good pan-crisped wrappers and a meatier flavor than standard pork dumplings. The gimbop were composed of rice that was light -- not wet and dense, as sushi rice can be -- and nori (seaweed wrapper) that was still crisp thanks to immediate service. Vegetables, such as steamed carrot and cucumber, took on sweet-sharp notes from pickling in white wine vinegar.
Angelique also had bulgogi, a Korean beef stir-fry whose name literally means "fire meat," a reference to the method of cooking -- over an open flame -- rather than to the spiciness of the dish. In fact, bulgogi is not spicy at all, but hearty and savory. Golden Pig's featured tender marinated strips of sirloin with carrots and onions cooked to their firm, tender peak in a vibrant mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, black pepper, garlic, onions, ginger, wine and sugar. The dish was studded with sesame seeds and served with "extra fancy" white rice, and it was excellent.
Those looking for a spicy dish would do well with buldak, marinated chicken that the menu warns is not for the faint of heart. The bone-in dark meat was juicy and succulent and served in a rustic sauce of finely diced carrots, chilies, herbs and spices that contributed its own satisfying texture to the dish. While the sauce packed some heat, this was balanced by a vinegary tang, and the flavor of each bite finished with the earthy sweetness of the vegetables.
A Korean pancake was spicy, too, thanks to the slivers of hot green pepper in the batter, which fried up brown and crispy at the edges, while remaining creamy inside.
Ramen was from a package -- Jason spotted Kwon adding the powdered seasoning and oil packet -- but she also added enough fresh vegetables, egg and, at our request, chicken to completely disguise the industrial origins of her noodles. They were aromatic and delicious.
We wholeheartedly join the lucky residents of Cecil in welcoming Yong Kwon and her superb, authentic Korean cooking.