Apr. 8, 2022•
9 min read
As the perpetual late bloomer, I just had Korean food for the first time a handful of years ago. Before then, it was a lazy susan of Japanese-Thai-Vietnamese on my GrubHub order history. In fact, I started eating sushi—technically uramaki—back when I was 14 and my family would go downtown to get Japanese food for dinner. Yes, it was mostly California rolls with the occasional unagi thrown into the mix. Yes, you can judge me. At the time I thought I was really cool. That was before I gave up the futile pursuit to be cool.
But this post is not about Japanese food. It’s about Korean food, which I recently ordered from Maru Korean Bistro. Sitting at 2150 N. Prospect Avenue, Maru is the third iteration of a Kim family restaurant in four years, starting as Kanpai 2 in 2018, transitioning to Maru Sushi in 2019, and shuttering in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic only to reopen as Maru Korean Bistro this winter. Its neighbor, Seoul, a Milwaukee mainstay for Korean food also closed its doors—for good—during the pandemic.
COVID-19 hit restaurants hard during the pandemic. In fact, back in September 2021, over 70% of Wisconsin restaurant operators said they anticipated it would be more than a year before their operations returned to any semblance of a baseline, if they ever do.
Mask mandates. Community spread. The Great Resignation.
What’s been challenging for all of us has been hell for restaurant owners. And as a magical place where you can enter an Alice in Wonderland-like escape from everyday life filled with things like Edison bulbs, curated playlists that evoke a mood, blackberry and lemon thyme-infused mocktails, and meals you don’t have to cook for yourself—I’ve wanted so badly to give you all a glowing review to encourage support these spaces so we don’t lose them for good.
Fortunately, this one inches closer than my other reviews so far this year.
I am no expert in Korean food. The closest I can come is badgering my brother—who lived in South Korea for a year—to tell me if he had ever had any of the dishes on Maru’s menu. He had. At least a few of them, or versions of them, which are inevitably different than what you can find in the streets of Seoul. Are bistros even a thing in South Korea? How do you identify the line between authentic and Americanized (bastardized)? Are we done calling food “fusion” yet?
For fusion, its kind of like a chicken and the egg situation. Tracing the roots of a particular dish can take you across the globe, and begs the question, who really can lay claim to a dish influenced by 1000s of years of international trade, colonization, and any number of diasporas? Is fusion just food evolution on steroids? Can we please, please lay the term to rest?
In any case, I started my meal with an order of Korean Wings, plain, the irony not lost on my white self. Sometimes I feel like the best way to introduce people to cuisine from other parts of the world is to ease them into an entry point, a bridge that gets them to the funkier stuff. Though funk is a matter of perspective. (I say as I reflect on the absolutely bonkers shit we eat in Wisconsin—blue moon ice cream, casseroles a.k.a vomit in a crockpot, and the ridiculous amounts of cheese and mayonnaise we put on everything, myself included.) The funk that is familiar is the funk we know and love.
The Korean Wings came with a small container of seasoned salt. I identified pepper in a Himalayan salt base, and yes, the dish needs it. The breading is crisp, crunchy, and plentiful. The salt makes it pop. The chicken has a sweetness to it, and it’s juicy but could be juicier. My first reaction was, okay, but then I entered a fugue state, and a few minutes later I had absolutely demolished my first wing without even thinking. It grows on you. Order it with the sweet and spicy garlic sauce and then tell me if it’s even better. Now we explore main courses, organized by protein.
The dish I was most excited about was the Soft Tofu Stew with Kimchi. It’s also the dish I was most disappointed by. So let’s get that out of the way first and get to the (better) stuff. I was in a long-term relationship with vegetarianism throughout my late teens and early 20s. I ate lots of tofu. I like tofu. It’s like a vessel for flavor, when prepared right. One of the best transformations I’ve had was blended up into an impossibly creamy and flavorful vegan cream cheese, smeared all over a New York-style bagel. It’s God-tier stuff, y’all.
Anyway, back to the soft tofu stew. I expected soft, delicate tofu. Tangy, funky kimchi. Spicy broth. This stew has a spicy pop and it has a funk and the soft tofu is good, but it’s missing balance. The elements fail to lift each other up and all kind of blend together into a disappointing slurp. It’s surprisingly one-note and leaves a briny, metallic aftertaste in your mouth. Now I need you to follow along with me because it’s going to get a bit complicated.
I LOVE kimchi. When made well, it has a funk but also a brightness from the fermentation process that makes it irresistible. I will absolutely close my eyes and savor it, embarrassing everybody around me. It should taste funky but fresh. Funky fresh. It doesn’t matter if it’s marinated in its own juices in a clay vessel or large glass jar for two weeks or two years, it’s alive with bacteria, and it should taste alive.
I needed the stew to have that aliveness, and instead, it tasted like a bit of an afterthought. A sad afterthought. Like when you take a huge bite out of a block of aged cheddar from your fridge and think, “Oh God, what am I doing with my life?” Fortunately, there’s less regret going forward.
When you’re in need of nourishment or feel like hot garbage, you need a go-to dish to make you feel right with the world again. Traditionalists go for chicken noodle soup. I’m partial to a steaming bowl of pho. The Beef Stew from Maru Korean Bistro rises in the ranks. The stock is hearty and full of umami flavor. The proportions of meat to carbs to vegetables are perfect. The large chunks of carrots, zucchini, onions, and cabbage just work, and this is coming from somebody that generally prefers a small dice as far as cuts go.
And the beef. Let’s talk about the beef. The beef bulgogi is really, really good. When you’re cooking rib eye, the traditional cut for beef bulgogi, it can breach the chewy line, making you work way too hard for your food. The beef bulgogi in this stew works for you. It’s slightly chewy but somehow almost melts in your mouth when you have it in your spoonful. Don’t tell the recovering vegetarian in me, but I was in love.
I ate the leftovers the next afternoon, and it was still just as good, especially sitting on my back porch while my dude pug chomped on sticks and my lady pug played fetch until she was heaving (it’s a rough and beautiful life). If I’m being honest, I’ll still default to pho when I need a dish to warm my bones. The squeeze of lime, the fresh basil, the slices of jalapeno—it’s just a really balanced and dynamic dish. When I order this dish again (and I will), I will opt for the spicy option to see if it raises the oral intrigue at all.
My wildcard order was the Duk Mandu Soup with Pork Dumplings. It’s not the kind of dish I would normally order, and I’m not a huge pork person. Lamb, trout, short ribs—sweet Jesus short ribs!—and the occasional filet are my default restaurant indulgences. But order pork I did. This soup had one of the best bites of the night, and the pork wasn’t even part of it. Thick, almost viscous chicken broth, soft and silky egg, roasted seaweed, and a chewy rice cake. Nirvana. That bite alone is flavorful, balanced, and is a textural rodeo.
On the other hand, the sesame oil is too subtle, which is astounding because usually, sesame oil enters the scene like those irritating motivational speakers that do that whole, “How’s everybody doing today? What’s that? I CAN’T HEAR YOU! I SAID, how’s everybody doing today?!” thing. Not here. Not in this bowl.
The downside to this soup was the pork dumplings. It’s not that they didn’t taste good; they did. It’s that they were partially disintegrating into the broth. Maybe that’s your jam, but I found it a bit difficult to eat.
Before we go to the next dish, I want to wax poetic about the rice cakes. I’d never had Korean rice cakes in this soup’s medallion shape before. They are soft and chewy and ooze their starchy molecules to yield this gorgeous thickened broth. I bow down. Order this soup. Do it.
The first Korean dish I ever had was bibimbap from Stone Bowl almost six years ago. I remember my mind being blown. The crispy rice. The tangy accouterments (banchan). The gooey egg on top. HEAVEN. Needless to say, I had high expectations for Maru Korean Bistro.
The high notes:
The low notes:
You’ve already heard how much I love the beef from this place. Here’s your reminder. Moving on.
I’m a total egg slut, so any place that cooks an egg perfectly has my allegiance. Gooey, dripping egg yolk is the epitome of food porn. Now, let’s talk low notes.
I don’t understand how the majority of the banchan tasted the same but it did. I suspect it was an issue in over-processing that tarnished the textural variations between the vegetables. I want to know I’m biting into a carrot. I want to feel the slight resistance then crunch then give you feel on your teeth when you dig into a piece of cabbage. I had the sads.
My sads turned to outright tears with the rice. Okay, not really, I’m just being melodramatic. The rice, unlike the veggies, was the right texture—not too soft, not undercooked. However, it was somewhat flavorless. Perhaps this was user error on my part as I’m not entirely familiar with the cooking methods for Korean rice.
Yet, some of the best rice out there shines in its own way, and I would expect the same here. Think of sushi rice with its vinegary bite and sticky texture. Consider basmati rice, fluffy like a cloud and perfect to slather curry all over. What is this rice supposed to do? What’s its schtick? I have no idea. But maybe salt is a place to start.
I end the tour de Maru Korean Bistro with *drumroll* beef! Are you shocked? In awe? Annoyed?
My partner ordered the spicy beef bulgogi and it was a winner. He loved it so much that he plans to order it again and again. This beef comes cooked with serrano peppers and it leaves a tingly pop on your tongue and coats your throat when you eat it. Once again, there’s a perfect balance between texture and effort. There’s really not much else to say here. Beef and rice. Spicy. Tangy. Decidedly delicious.
From me to you, be careful of the serrano peppers. They come tossed in with the beef, and if you bite into one, it’s a spicy surprise you may not want especially if you go for the pod and get seeds.
Part of me feels wrong giving all of you a review of Korean food since I’m such a relative novice. I can speak way more confidently about Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine, which I have eaten in significantly higher quantities than Korean dishes. Yet, I’m a firm believer that food is the universal language. Even if we hit bumps along the road trying to conceptualize each other’s food culture funk, we all know what it’s like to taste something that leaves you at a loss for words.
Maru Korean Bistro provides a handful of bites that need no words, and for that reason, it’s worth a visit. Did it blow my socks off? No. Will I order it again? Probably. Is it authentic? I’m not the right person to ask.
But the minute we start gatekeeping food is the minute I turn in my human card and head for the woods. When we share no words, the least we can do is break bread together. If we lose the ability to explore and share food, we lose our humanity.
So go order yourself a bowl of something hot and brothy from Maru Korean Bistro.
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About the author
Propagator of succulents, hobbyist baker, healthcare by day, pug wrangler always.