Dish: Tradition Refocused at Meju

Korean comfort food gets the Davis Square treatment
Spicy rice cakes in pan with garnish
Spicy rice cakes topped with mozzarella and boiled egg. Photo: Alonso Nichols
October 27, 2015

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This is one in an occasional series about eating establishments near Tufts’ three campuses. Have a suggestion for a place for us to explore? Email now@tufts.edu.

The nouvelle Korean restaurant Meju in Davis Square garnered copious smooches from the local food arbiters when it opened last January. Now that enough time had passed for the love affair to simmer down, I wanted to investigate how the place measured up the morning after.

A hospitable greeting welcomed us into the airy open room. Be prepared for flat surfaces that amplify noisy diners should you find yourself seated in their section. Servers are eager to please, but didn’t seem uniformly briefed with detailed info about menu items.

We started with dumplings, served steamed or deep-fried, in beef-stuffed mandoo style or filled with shrimp. Order them steamed to appreciate the thin, translucent skin. Fillings are loosely packed to maintain fluffiness, with glass vermicelli contributing a soft, slippery texture to the robust scallion mixture. Choosing the version described as fried flat will bring you something akin to a deep-fried pop tart.

“They look really pretty,” remarked one of my tasters, but try to ignore the insufficiently crisp-fried lotus root chips from the menu category designated Crunches. If inclined to favor a doughy indulgence, go for the spicy pork bulgogi bun, spiked with chili and an accent of shredded lettuce nestled in a round pocket that’s a perfect chew, neither too spongy nor too dense. I can accept the spot of pink mayonnaise, but wouldn't shed any tears if it went away.

Korean seafood pancakes are comfort food for me. Here they were more delicate than chewy, soft in the middle and fried to a golden exterior. A lighter take on the traditional favorite, they were judged by all to be the best item ordered on a recent lunch check-in. Also shareable was a generous portion of roasted mixed mushrooms: an impressive assortment of fleshy and tender varieties, their flavor slightly veiled beneath an application of sweet soy.

The grilled galbi—beef short ribs in Korean pear soy sauce. Photo: Alonso NicholsA standout among the dinner offerings was the grilled galbi, bite-sized beef short ribs cooked medium-rare and plated alongside mixed greens in a sesame-soy dressing. Buttery and flavorful, the tender chunks disarmed a judgy bunch into appreciative lipsmackers. Receiving equal love at the table was the chili stir-fried pork belly. Approving comments singled out the nicely seared badges of meat and the admirable doneness of the potatoes. The total avoidance of green bell peppers the entire evening was hailed as a victory, with shishitos and other hotties gratefully standing in.

Among the other sizeable entrees circulated, a warming bowl of wheat noodles in black bean sauce (jajangmyeon) hit all the right notes—savory, smoky and earthy, with enough contrasting texture from bits of pork, onion and zucchini to offset the pleasantly firm noodles. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Not everyone was in agreement, one finding it bland and another “not a flavor that makes you want to go back for a second bite.” It was ordered at a number of tables around us.

I went along with getting the spicy rice cakes with mozzarella. Not being a big fan of rice cakes, an additional blanket of cheese offered little in the way of incentive. The contents arrived embedded in a respectably fiery vermilion-colored sauce with a sprinkle of melted, shredded topping. The tubular cylinders were more approachable than I recalled from previous encounters, sharing some of the appealing chewiness that bonded me with the jiajangmyeon. Sometimes I enjoy being proven wrong.

The scallion pancake with vegetables, also available with seafood. Photo: Alonso NicholsOctopus catches my eye whenever I see it, here making its appearance as a topping on the bibimbap. It proved tougher than ideal, but I was happy to see the rice component offered in choice of white, black or pink (a mixture of black and white), as well as quinoa. Another visit’s tofu bibimbap was judged to be light on sesame oil and consequently flavor. Gochujang sauce (described by some as Korean ketchup) is always nearby to provide some spice.

I’m not sure why there’s a need for National Dessert Day, but we have it to thank for our crowd-pleasing finish one night. We were curious about the featured addition called hoddeok based on its description: a honey-filled rice flour pancake that’s a common street food item in Korea. Pan-seared with a toothsome but simply flavored interior, this exemplified the worthiness of straightforward, honest fare lovingly prepared. I lobbied for its introduction onto the menu, and you should snap it up if it makes a return appearance.

Meju, 243 Elm St., Somerville. 617-764-3053. Sunday-Thursday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10:30 p.m; Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 to 11:30 p.m.; www.mejudavis.com.

Fred Kalil can be reached at frederick.kalil@tufts.edu.

Read earlier reviews on the Dish series page.