December 18, 2011

Dine Out Maine: Go Gogi for a Korean-Mexican blend with (mostly) meat

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

Gogi, pronounced with two hard consonants, means "meat" in Korean. Add a prefix to the word for a more comprehensive descriptor – dalg-gogi for chicken meat or soe-gogi for beef (yeomso-gogi for goat), and this is the concept for both "gogi" the word and Portland's Gogi the restaurant. Meat.

20111209_DineOutME
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Hwamin Yi, co-owner of Gogi in Portland, displays a shiitake mushroom quesadilla, a pork belly taco with kimchee and a bowl of Korean black bean soup.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Gogi describes its fare as a fusion of Korean and Mexican cuisine.

DINING REVIEW

GOGI, 653 Congress St., Portland. gogime.com

***1/2

HOURS: Noon to 11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; noon to 2 a.m. Wednesday to Saturday; 2 to 10 p.m. Sunday

BAR: None, but bottled beer is available in the cooler

CREDIT CARDS: All major

PRICE RANGE: $3 to $7.50

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

KID-FRIENDLY: Yes, but no children's menu

PARKING: On street

RESERVATIONS: No

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: As an inexpensive late-night snack or quick meal, you cannot beat Gogi's savory and unique brand of Korean tacos. The vegetarian options are also tasty, but given that Gogi is the Korean word for meat, this is primarily a meat-lover's restaurant.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

* Poor **Fair ***Good ****Excellent *****Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

Specifically, meat tacos and quesadillas. Gogi describes itself as Korean and Mexican fusion, and while I bristle at the word "fusion" with the same pretense of words like "mouthfeel," "umami" and "succulent," I was game for the experience. I fell in love with Korean barbecue during a stint in Honolulu, and I was eager to find something similar nearby, even if it was wrapped as a taco.

Portland is lucky to count Gogi among its restaurant offerings, especially on its roster of late-night options. Even though it is situated in one of the Arts District's sketchiest blocks – opposite the adult video store and near the International Cryptozoology Museum with its giant Bigfoot rendering – the walk to Gogi never feels scary or intimidating, just full of interesting character.

The dining space is open, simple and unadorned, but inviting with peach-colored walls and low lighting. Place an order at the counter, and if possible, find a seat at the window, because the Congress Street view is better than any TV. Gogi is a terrific early date locale – inexpensive, unique and, when the food arrives, so much to discuss.

It is also a place to meet a large group of friends, and given its weekend 2 a.m. closing time, Gogi is fantastic for night owls or those looking to end an evening in Portland. Given the prices, Gogi is accessible to most budgets.

First, try the kimchee. Either as the sticky kimchee fried rice ($4.25) or as a solo offering ($3.25), this traditional pickled cabbage salad is pungent and crunchy, and it tasted homemade and fresh. The Seaweed Salad ($4.50), although not especially distinct from seaweed salads at other Asian restaurants, felt tangy and familiar.

For me, the winner was the cucumber salad ($3.50), with chunks of crisp cucumber in a sweet vinegar and chili-based dressing. An honorable mention goes to the eight fried shrimp dumplings ($6.25) and their uncanny textural likeness to homestyle hush puppies – crispy on the outside, doughy and spongy-smooth on the inside.

But remember, Gogi means meat. With options that include marinated chicken ($3.25), BBQ pulled pork ($3.50), marinated short rib ($3.50) and pork belly ($3.75), I lined them up.

Presented in cheery red plastic baskets, the taco fillings were encased in two soft, warm corn tortillas. Each taco was topped with cilantro lime aioli, shiso mint aioli or a piquant, puree-style salsa.

The meat was rich with flavor – never overspiced or heavy – and the tacos included a variety of textures. More cilantro graced the top of each, and the presentation with lettuce, sprouts, cucumbers and lime slivers and was way more artistically appealing than I expected for the prices.

When sampling all the meat options, it was a bit of a meat overload, and each taco's meat characteristics began to blend. Eventually, I began to wonder if I was enjoying the chicken or pork, the short ribs or the pork belly. It was all delicious, but after a few tacos, it was also hard to distinguish.

The upside of this was an excellent philosophical debate at the table about the culture of meat eating. Specifically, why one animal and not another? Meat tastes very much like other meat when it is marinated and slow-cooked.

This is what prompted the goat order, on the daily special board. Having never tried goat meat, I can now attest that it tastes exactly like – meat! Like the rest of Gogi's gogi, it was tender and flavorful, well marinated and well spiced.

Given the overall meat emphasis, I appreciated Gogi's nod toward vegetarians with the tofu ($3) and marinated shitake mushroom ($3) options, as well as the fish and Maine shrimp (both $3.75) for the pescetarians – tasty and substantial, especially when topped with the softly fried quail egg (add an extra $1.50).

Given the overall Gogi focus, none of these non-meat options seemed like afterthoughts. These alternative options were just as artful, delicious and well-prepared as any meat on the menu. The mushroom was hearty; the tofu flavorful and smooth. Fish tacos included lightly fried white fish, and the Maine shrimp were cooked perfectly.

So, Gogi is meat. Or not, depending upon your preference.

Go to Gogi for the novelty of Korean tacos. The service is friendly, the vibe is casual, and the Arts District locale is ripe for conversation fodder.

Most importantly, the food is a unique and delicious "fusion" of Korean flavor and Mexican style. 

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a freelance writer.

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