The more I delve into the Korean restaurant scene in metro Denver (centered primarily in Aurora), the more I realize that Koreans and Americans have a great deal in common when it comes to ideas about food — restaurant food, at least. My first stop was Tofu House, where despite some unfamiliar spices, I found bowls of comforting soup surrounded by numerous little side dishes of pickles and salads. It was like a trip to grandma's house, where a relish tray was always part of the spread and a visit wasn't complete without a hearty bowl of soup or stew. Next, I headed to Silla for Korean barbecue, so close to a typical backyard cookout experience that I could almost smell the lighter fluid. And last week I ate Korean fried chicken at Funny Plus: Korean or not, it's some of the best fried chicken in town. How can it get any more American than comforting soup, barbecue and fried chicken? How about a jelly doughnut?
At Yum Yum Cake and Pastries, which opened last year in Aurora, that doughnut is filled with sweet red bean paste instead of fruit jelly or custard, but otherwise it's identical to the first morning bite of millions of Americans every day. The fried pastry comes with a sparkling coating of white sugar and a generous layer of dark bean paste — not the crimson-dyed stuff you sometimes see in Asian desserts — that has a pleasant and mild flavor and smooth texture.
Yum Yum's morning variety encompasses a multitude of bun textures and fillings, both sweet and savory. There are fat, round buns filled with lightly curried scrambled egg, onion and potato; fluffy flatbreads with pizza-like toppings, only with disks of hot dog standing in for pepperoni; flaky horns layered with baked raspberry filling; and jelly rolls in vivid colors to match the flavors: green matcha tea, hot pink raspberry, yellow lemon and lavender blueberry. Even though each pastry comes in its own sealed plastic bag, everything is baked in-house and most of it, even by mid-morning, is still warm and fresh. In fact, several of the baskets used to separate the many varieties were almost empty when I stopped in, so it's best to get there early for a full selection.
Yum Yum also specializes in decorated cakes, individual desserts and a rainbow assortment of perfect little macarons (the airy French cookies, not sticky, coconut macaroons). There are also a few tables where you can relax and enjoy coffee with your doughnut or egg bun while the constant bustle of baked goods being packaged and boxed continues behind the counter.
And don't think that Yum Yum is a solitary phenomena; there are several other Korean bakeries in the vicinity. I also stopped by the New York Bakery just around the corner on Iliff Street for a quick comparison. It's a little smaller and not quite so modern as Yum Yum and the emphasis seems to be more on bread and buns, rather than breakfast sweets or fancy French-inspired delicacies, but even here there are a couple of tables in case you want to sit down and enjoy a snack. The baker, wearing a flour-dusted apron and working busily in the back room, will also ring in your order, so say hello through the doorway if he doesn't hear you come in.
Sure, during this month of Ethniche eating I found plenty of traditional Korean dishes that would baffle most Westerners. Yum Yum also has a pastry filled with green bean paste, Silla offers a black goat hot pot (goat is still a scary protein to most Americans content with the big-Ag trinity of beef, chicken and pork), and Funny Plus even features a pork bung dish on its menu — something you're definitely not going to see at the other KFC.
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Korean restaurants are becoming big business in Aurora. There are so many Korean barbecue joints that's it's sometimes tough to keep track of them; Sae Jong Kwan next door to Yum Yum is one of the more established in the area, and recently upgraded its outdoor signage. And a new place in the same strip — BBQ House (not to be confused with the now-closed House Korean BBQ) — just had its grand opening last week. A sign in the window there advertises "dignity-class barbecue," which definitely has its appeal, because if you don't have your dignity, what do you have?