I think I’ve found my favorite version of bi bim bap in the city, and it’s served as an afterthought on a menu with a completely different focus.
The specialty of the house at Bonjuk in Duluth is juk, also spelled jook, also called congee, and best described as rice porridge. Chinese versions of this dish are usually perfectly white and bland, with a few flavorful add-ins, such as pork, scallions or chunks of 1,000 year eggs. But at this branch of an international chain, the juk is Korean-style — colorful and plumbed with seasonings, minced vegetables and principal ingredients ranging from shellfish, to chicken and ginseng, to mushrooms.
When my 11-year-old ordered a bowl of seafood juk bigger than her head, I decided to indulge a hankering for bi bim bap. Pictured is the version with kimchi-spiced pork. I figured I’d have no shortage of juk to cadge off her plate.
This should not have been my favorite bi bim bap. No way, no how. For starters, there is no gooey-centered/crispy-edged fried egg on top, but instead yellow strips of cold egg. Nor is it served in one of those superheated stoneware bowls (called a dolsot) that both warms your face and crisps the rice.
Yet it was a kind of perfection — the carrot sticks, marinated fern and spinach stems all mirrored each other in texture but contrasted in taste, so that once mixed the flavors all made uniform pop-pop-pops in the mouth. I love the precision of well-made Korean food.
Both the bi bim bap and juk come with a tasty assortment of appropriate side dishes (below). This restaurant also makes the best water kimchi I’ve ever had, with leaves of the white, fermented cabbage leaf floating in its icy, semi-frozen pickling juices. It’s like a really good dirty martini.
Bonjuk is located in the still semi-empty Berkeley Pointe shopping complex where H & Y Marketplace was supposed to open. Sadly, that organic-minded Korean supermarket chain pulled out of this market before ever opening.