Dae Gee 827 Colorado Boulevard 720-639-9986
The Inuit have more than fifty words for snow, which tells us two things. First, there's a lot of snow in the Canadian hinterlands. Second, and more important for our purposes, is that the more people know about something -- which snow is powdery (pukak), for example, and which is good for icing a sleigh's runners (matsaaruti) -- the better they are at describing it.
That's why Americans, who have little use for cabbage other than the occasional slaw in summer, could try the fiery beef short-rib stew that I liked so much at Dae Gee and fail to even mention that cabbage is in the dish. But Dae Gee's online menu not only lists cabbage as one of the stew's many ingredients, it specifies the use of outer leaves, a level of detail that's rare even in this era of highlighting everything from brand of cheese to breed of pig. If Dae Gee chef/owner Joseph Kim has his way, though, more people will develop this nuanced appreciation -- not just for cabbage, but for bulgogi, kimchee and gochugaru, the red-chile powder that stains everything from soups to side dishes. "We're letting them know what Korean food is about," says Kim. "We're reaching the masses."
See also: Behind the Scenes at Dae Gee
In his attempt to demystify Korean fare, 33-year-old Kim is bringing his own brand of youthful energy to the restaurant business. The former owner of a dry-cleaning shop, he bought into the restaurant in Westminster where his mother-in-law worked -- then called Korean Garden BBQ -- in 2010, and took over shortly thereafter. He quickly began taking steps to make it his own, renaming the restaurant Dae Gee, which means "pig" in Korean, and repositioning it to appeal to a wider audience.
That explains why, when Kim chose to open a second spot, he chose a location not in the suburbs but on Colorado Boulevard, in the heart of Denver. It's also why this Dae Gee, which must've been remodeled on a shoestring, is so youth-oriented. Music blares from wall-mounted speakers flashing fuchsia and green; close your eyes to shut out the brown walls and shiny black tables, and you'll think you're at a dance party or inside an arcade. The menu is very 2015, too, heavily influenced by social media, with Instagram-like pictures of people hovering over tables crammed with food and text that says, "Show us how you pig out!" You get the feeling that Kim is doing all he can to say that this is not your mother's Korean restaurant -- or his mother-in-law's, either.
But if the vibe breaks with tradition, the food does not. The cooks "are doing it exactly the way they would in Korea," says Kim. "They're not really gearing it toward Americans." So that short-rib stew, listed on the menu as uguji galbee tang, came loaded with noodles, bean sprouts and plenty of beef (some of it still attached to big bones that most chefs would strain out), not to mention so much red-chile powder and jalapeño that it was impossible not to cough on the first searing spoonful. A traditional zucchini pancake also wowed, with savory bits of grated zucchini held together in an egg-flour batter so crisp the edges shattered with each bite. Too bad the kitchen didn't time the courses better; this appetizer was followed within minutes by the rest of our meal, and wasn't quite as sensational after it had cooled. But it was impossible not to turn our attention to the entrees the moment they appeared. Dol soht bee bim bhop arrived in a stone pot hot enough to transform the bottom layer of rice into crisp, chewy bits to mix with the marinated beef and salad-like goodies on top. Galbee proved a reliable version of this Korean staple, the bone-in (in the L.A. version) or boneless short ribs bathed in a garlicky soy marinade that was sweet, but not overly so. Keep reading for more on Dae Gee. Entrees come with unlimited banchan, a variety of eight or so side dishes including mung-bean sprouts, fish cakes, broccoli in sesame oil and cucumber kimchee. First-timers might be tempted to laugh at the potato salad, which tastes like what you serve with burgers and watermelon on the Fourth of July. But instead of laughing, you should thank your lucky stars it's on the table; the starchy, creamy side has a way of taming the burn that creeps along your lips and tongue as the meal progresses.
Dae Gee doesn't have grill tables, which is unusual for a Korean barbecue joint. Kim decided to open his second spot without them for reasons of both cost and permitting; he expects to install tables by the summer. Until then, the unlimited barbecue option is only available at the Dae Gee in Westminster. For now in Denver, meats such as beef bulgogi, pork and chicken are cooked in the kitchen and delivered by servers. This presentation is a little less fun, and also less easily tailored to individual taste; I found the brisket in particular too soggy and damp. The flavors, however, were all there, whether in the chicken thighs hinting of sweet soy marinade, the thinly sliced pork in sweat-inducing barbecue sauce, or that brisket, which improved markedly after a dunk in sesame oil. All meats can be tucked inside lettuce and eaten as a wrap, piled high with whatever you want to mix in: rice, fresh slaw, extra barbecue sauce -- squirt bottles in varying heat levels are kept on the table -- and any of the other side dishes, such as kimchee.
Speaking of kimchee: Koreans make more than one dish that we refer to as kimchee, just as the Inuit have scores of words for what we call snow. The most well-known is made of napa cabbage, red chile powder, fish sauce and salted shrimp, and tastes either crisp and fresh or funky and fishy, depending on who made it and how long it's been left to ferment. Just as prevalent at Dae Gee are two complimentary sides: cucumber kimchee, with skin-on cucumbers mixed with jalapeños; and kimchee pancakes, which are milder than the stand-alone side, and come at room temperature. My favorite version, though, was the tofu kimchee appetizer: White, quivering rectangles of tofu were sprinkled with sesame seeds and set like thick sunbeams around a deeply flavored mound of garlicky kimchee sautéed with pork.
When cabbage tastes this good, Kim is doing more than reaching the masses; he's making a case for why the English language needs a few more words for cabbage.
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Select menu items at Dae Gee:
Tofu kimchee $3.95
Zucchini pancake $7.95
Pork bulgogi $15.95
Uguji galbee tang $11.95
Dol soht bee bim
Dae Gee is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Learn more at daegee.com.