Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Hot Spot at Golden Pig, the Cook and Her Spicy South Korean Food Bring out Diners' Adulation

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Hot Spot at Golden Pig, the Cook and Her Spicy South Korean Food Bring out Diners' Adulation

Article excerpt

At the end of July, Yong Kwon returned to her kitchen at the Golden Pig in Cecil. It was the weekend of the carnival at the township's volunteer fire department when bands played along Millers Run Road and kids rode a Ferris wheel lit up against the sunset.

The lone proprietor since her son helped her open the restaurant in 2008, Ms. Kwon recently took nine weeks off to spend with her grandchildren and to visit South Korea.

Now, she's back cooking the food she grew up on, decidedly savory dishes that display what she describes as an older style. It's different from sugar-laden dishes that have crept into Korean restaurants, such as Korean fried chicken with its sweet heat.

Her food also reflects her values, having been raised during a depression when she admits she had been close to starving. Today, her priority is to serve fresh, affordable fare.

Regulars had hankered for her cooking during her absence. It had been too long since they'd feasted on buldak ($7.50, $9.50), sesame- laced chicken with carrots in a fiery marinade, the result of chili peppers, soy sauce and red pepper paste, among other ingredients.

It's one of the hottest dishes you can order in Pittsburgh, competing with the Scoville scale of Sichuan dishes.

Whether it's because of her spicy food or her charisma, Ms. Kwon has cultivated quite a following. It's made up of diners looking for authenticity at a time when cuisine that adheres to a culinary tradition is hardly celebrated. These days, diners are more likely to fawn over a chef's take or unlikely fusions.

The same is true in South Korea, noted Ms. Kwon, where she was surprised to see hybrid cuisine and newly introduced foods. Children doused fried rice with ketchup, which she had never seen before. Formerly nonexistent in her homeland, cheese and pizza have become delicacies.

Things have changed so much since her last visit there five years ago that she did not recognize her former neighborhood.

"I wanted to surprise my family," she said, "but I had to call to ask which house it was."

Back in Cecil, customers are still rejoicing her return.

"Have some wine with us," said a guy at a table of six. He had brought a big bottle of red to share with anyone who wanted a pour, including two guys standing at the counter and students on a date.

Appreciative customers have given her pig tchotchkes that decorate the place. Golden Pig is her grandson's nickname and the auspicious year in Korean astrology. A ceramic family of swine poses near the window, while tiny pocket pigs fill a silver platter.

"My customers are trying to get me drunk," joked Ms. Kwon. "I still have people waiting, and I have to cook."

For nonalcoholic drinks, customers can choose from bottled water, Snapple, ginger ale and Pellegrino Aranciata in the Coca-Cola fridge next to ginseng, cinnamon and rice sodas with Korean labels. …

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