The Fat Boy Moves: Korean Comfort at Home
The largest community of Asians we have living amongst us in Mexico City is Korean. Many Korean restaurants, markets and sundry mysterious businesses grace the streets of the Zona Rosa. While I like to shop for spicy pickles, still-warm freshly molded tofu, frozen dumplings and assorted packaged soups good for an emergency, I have yet to discover an eating establishment with which I am truly satisfied. I’ve been to a couple whose menus were only in Korean and undoubtedly I didn’t order well. So Korean remains the Asian cuisine about which I have not become truly familiar. That said, to misquote Will Rogers, I never met a kim chi I don’t like. I await enlightenment. Meanwhile David Chang arrived a few years ago in my hometown, New York. His bad boy renegade attitude belied a truly fabulous conceptual base; his kitchen surprised, teased and provoked. He applied science, Spain and modernism to Asian comfort foods. He’s one of the 21st century’s most revelatory cooks, and his concepts have been trending everywhere from Maine to Mexicali. That’s where the Fat Boy comes in. He has moved to CDMX and has brought of bit of Chang our way. The Fat Boy’s real name is Allen Noveck and he does not live up to the moniker as he is strapping, almost svelte. Born in Seoul to a Korean mother and American father, at three Noveck and family moved to the U.S.; he grew up in the New York area, staying connected to his Korean roots through cooking. After acquiring a solid European technical base at the French Culinary Institute (now ICC), he started working at "the restaurants I liked to eat in the most.” His first job was, fittingly, at Momofuku, Chang’s now iconic flagship – “I picked up a lot of good habits and technique there.” He then did stints at various tony spots such as Le Cirque and Locanda Verde, Andrew Carmellini’s comfy Greenwich Village Italian, perfecting a European technique that has served him well in his new venture.
It was in Locanda Verde that the young chef met his future wife, Mexican pastry chef Maria Fernanda Millán. He recalls that “we got married in Acapulco – my wife is from Guerrero – and then traveled around. I fell in love with Mexico City. Back in N.Y. I got a job at Dirty French and was able to see the process of going from conception to recipe testing to opening. It was challenging, to put it mildly. I then studied with a Korean chef. We were already determined at that point to move to Mexico. Marifer was working at 11 Madison Park refining her pastry skills and I was busy defining the concept of what our restaurant would be.” This finally led to the move south of the border and the plunge into the ever-expanding whirlwind of gastronomic venture our city offers. They rented a humble locale a bit off the party-time Condesa track, fixed it up a la cheap and cheerful – “it was fancy tables or a new stove – the stove won” - and together, with only one helper, Miguel, opened the doors in August. Allen explains “I tend to gravitate toward comfort, rustic flavorful food, in a more casual lounge setting. We wanted to create an environment where you could go in and indulge, have fun, eat something delicious, maybe even a little bit over the top. We didn’t want to pigeon-hole ourselves as a Korean restaurant. But we knew that Korean would be the backbone, that we would use Korean recipes, ingredients flavors, and veer off from there.”
The chef takes Korean comfort food to a surprisingly sophisticated level. His cooking is rich but unfussy Jewel-like Chang-esque plates bring Asia, California and Mexico together as one happy cross-cultural gustatory family. He never loses sight of his Euro-training – cooking times are right on the nose, textures precise. Dishes are creative but pay loving homage to the Seoul classics on which they are based. Cauliflower florets, done to a light al dente crunch, are cloaked in gochujang, a syrupy, sweetish chili sauce, umami added by the fermented soybeans with which it is bound. This deceptively simple dish takes the brass ring.
Boned chunks of fried chicken, one of my favorites, are crispy, aromatic and juicy/tender within. The honey sauce is almost superfluous and I didn’t even remember it was there until I finally dipped and was so glad I did.
Bibimbap, which is a South Korean rice bowl containing a little of everything and an egg is meant to be stirred together and makes a perfect light lunch in and of itself.
Fried rice, inherently Chinese in orientation, is perfumed here with house-made kim chi and like all fine global rice dishes, conserves the pleasing, chewy texture of the individual grains.
Even the pedestrian sounding tomato and watermelon salad is astutely balanced – crunch, salt, sweet and tart harmonize like a barber shop quartet.
Desserts, done by Marifer, are witty in-jokes that taste good. Honey butter chips are indeed potato chips sweetly coated and are complemented by a rich milky ice cream. A “waffle coreano” in the shape of a fish swims happily in a foamy sea of white gelato. And cute little pink donuts arrive with a dipping sauce that turns out to be nothing more than milk.
The chef sums it up: “We want to cook what we like to make for ourselves, what we like to eat.” I like to eat what they cook; I’m so glad the Fat Boy has moved our way.
Fat Boy Moves
Tamaulipas 147, Condesa Open Wednesday-Thursday 1-4, 5:30- 9 p.m., Friday, Saturday 1- 10, Sunday 12-6 View map
Food: (1-10) 8
Ambience: (1-10) 6 - Mex fonda casual, a few tables inside and out – tinny music can be grating inside, given the small space
Prices: very reasonable; lunch should cost no more than $200 per person