Danji; Cafe Habana
Having just finished my first semester of college and my first wave of finals, I have good reason for my month-long absence. After returning to school from Thanksgiving break, I trudged through one last week of classes, then studied for finals during the following week, and took my finals during the week after that. Needless to say, I had not found time to write until now. After finals, however, I booked the first train I could find to New York. After a much-needed day of respite at my mom’s, I went out to the city to meet some friends, Ashleigh, Dom, and Anh. We ate at Danji for lunch and Cafe Habana for dinner. Though, I feel like we should have done the reverse.
I’m lucky to have a mother who cooks well because the quality of her Korean cooking surpasses most Korean restaurants. In fact, the only reason I would eat Korean food out is to eat at Hangawi, which does not necessarily trump my mother’s cooking in quality but offers unique Korean dishes my mother has never attempted before—avocado bibimbap and portobello mushroom “bulgogi.”Danji
Still, I went against my gut because I wanted to eat healthy, and Korean food is generally healthy. The fare, though a bit too pricey for its portion sizes, would appease most Westerners and, perhaps, even those who have grown up on Korean food. In fact, Danji recently made it on Sam Sifton’s list of top ten new restaurants in 2011—it placed tenth. Danji also found itself on Adam Platt’s top 101 restaurants in New York, placing 97th. Making it onto the radar by two prolific food critics in its first year is quite the accomplishment, especially considering how Danji is not the brainchild of a big-name chef.
The small, cozy restaurant offers a short list of items to order from. They have most of the Korean staples down, such as bibimbap and bulgogi, but they also offer some traditional Korean foods with a modern reinterpretation. For example, bulgogi is served as sliders.
I ordered a beef daikon soup, which comes in two sizes—small or large. At first, the bowl looks like it’s filled with nothing but liquid and a few sprigs of spring onion, but a little stirring unearths silky soft, rectangular sticks of tofu and minced pieces of meat. The warmth of the broth makes you want to grab the bowl and walk along the streets of New York.
Ashleigh ordered the spicy pork noodles, which are called bibim guksoo on their menu. The description comprises of words such as kimchi and bacon, but the dish has no kimchi in it, just the flavor of kimchi. Still, the noodles garnered only favorable words.
Anh ordered a box set, which Danji refers to as dup-bop set menus. The set menus come with two “side dishes”, the soup of the day, and rice with meat. The set menu side dishes are impeccably small, but considering the size of a normal dish, I was not surprised.
Dom, another friend of mine, ordered a small snack—the veggie dumplings. Danji’s dumplings look and feel like they came straight out of a deep fryer. They’re piping hot and have a crustacean shell. The filling does not clump together like some poorly made dumplings, but they are pretty standard in terms of taste.
After spending the day in SoHo, we stumbled across an old diner that looked like it could appear on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Drives. However, a Yelp search revealed only a stellar past—four stars and over 1,400 reviews—and after seeing a record like that, we didn’t think the place would disappoint.
The interior is rather plain if not funky: simple blue, booth seats, white-washed walls, and tropical paintings touting the restaurant’s name. Food at Cafe Habana follows a similar style, simple and perhaps a bit funky, but it works.
You won’t find any fanciful, creative dishes at Cafe Habana, but the portions are well-sized, and the food satisfies. This place is by no means foodie heaven, but if you’re looking for a quick bite or a casual meal, Cafe Habana’s convenient location next to SoHo’s shopping district makes the restaurant a great place for sustenance.
346 W 52nd St (between 8th Ave & 9th Ave)
New York, NY 10019
17 Prince St (between Elizabeth St & Mott St)
New York, NY 10012