Cafe Society

Sae Jong Kwan doesn't look promising, but packs the heat

For the past few years, when the first whispers of warm weather stirred my annual craving for bibim naeng myun, I inevitably made a beeline straight for Silla, which served what I thought might be the best version of the cold buckwheat noodle dish in the area. But this spring I decided to branch out, and I just found another contender.

Sae Jong Kwan doesn't look promising from the parking lot. The windows are covered with paper that's lettered in Korean, and the lights behind are dim. Once inside, you may not feel much more welcome: A hostess won't immediately greet you, and the space is sparsely decorated, if crammed with tables (those with grills are located behind a divider wall). But once you're seated, a large, cold Hite beer helps take the edge off. We started our meal with an order of pork boolgogi, because my boyfriend was excited about grilling. After delivering the banchan — including some of the spiciest kimchi I've had in Denver — our server brought out a glistening pile of raw meat, used an onion to season the grill and then handed us the tongs. Rob cooked with intense concentration as garlic-tinged smoke wafted up from the grill, watching for the moment when the edge of the pork was lightly caramelized. Then we grabbed the meat, wrapped it in lettuce and took a bite. The chunks were sweet and fiery, with a building intensity that we finally had to drown out with more beer.

Good as the boolgogi was, I abandoned it entirely when the bibim naeng myun arrived. The metal bowl was filled with skinny, gray buckwheat noodles in an angry orange sauce, brimming with dried chiles. After our server cut the noodles, we mixed them with the rest of the contents of the bowl, combining minced beef, cucumber, translucent strips of radish and Asian pear. Then we ate — eagerly. The noodles had a texture similar to jellyfish and wobbled against my teeth before sliding down my throat, leaving the scorched-earth heat of the sauce in their wake. That burn was mitigated, slightly, and complemented ideally by the fresh bite of pear — sweet, floral, crisp and cleansing. The pear is a traditional topping, and it worked incredibly well with Sae Jong Kwan's bibim naeng myun.

I ate until I was in danger of asphyxiation from the heat of the peppers: nose running, eyes puffy, looking really attractive, I'm sure, to my boyfriend — whenever he would take his eyes off the grill, that is. And then I sipped more beer, enjoying the end of a perfect meal on a perfect warm spring night.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk