With so few local opportunities to sate the craving, New Orleanians with a taste for Korean food perk up at the whiff of kimchi, be it buried at the bottom of a conventional Chinese restaurant menu or worked into a fine-dining chef's repertoire. So when word got around that a young couple was serving an entire menu of Korean food in New Orleans — until midnight, no less — it hardly mattered that the format was a bit unorthodox.
The Wandering Buddha operates from a tiny kitchen at the rear of the Hi-Ho Lounge, serving its Korean fare at the bar, in an ersatz patio out back and from a take-out window trimmed with Christmas lights. All of it is vegan.
Vegans and vegetarians may well delight over an entire — albeit short — menu tailored to their diet. But the most exciting part of the Wandering Buddha for me is its faithful and diligent approach to Korean flavors. Though meatless, the dishes are roundly satisfying and they should please anyone interested in robustly spicy Far Eastern cuisine. In fact, most of the dishes positively throb with flavor.
Dishes are based on family recipes passed down from a South Korean grandmother to Colleen Cronin, who runs the Wandering Buddha with her partner Christion Troxell. They waded into the venture with a once-a-week pop-up format and quickly and impressively expanded their operation. You may be dining among the barroom crowd, but Wandering Buddha does its best to make it feel like a restaurant. Chopsticks are tightly bound in napkins, food arrives promptly and attractively plated and the bill is presented in a proper check holder.
Dumplings filled with glass noodles and tofu are a safe start, as inviting and familiar as any fried snack, and so are the thin, chewy scallion pancakes, edged with dark griddle marks. Once you have your bearings, try the ssambap, a hash of diced tofu balanced on long leaves of crisp lettuce and eaten in the manner of hot dogs.
There are five entrees, though they share so many of the same ingredients that choosing between them can boil down to picking your starch. In one dish, discreet portions of spicy cucumbers, spinach and kimchi escort planks of tofu, and in another dish, a similar array of vegetables orbits a pile of cold buckwheat noodles. My favorite dish is gungjung tteokbokki, made with thick, chewy, gnocchi-like rice pasta under a pile of zucchini, carrots and mushrooms and a flurry of sesame seeds.
Spicy barbecue may be Korea's best-known culinary export, but as the Wandering Buddha demonstrates, a vegetarian meal can sharpen some of this cuisine's most distinguishing features. It better shows the dynamic contrasts of fresh vegetables and the intense fermented, pickled and marinated garnishes, sauces and sides that give the cuisine its punch. At the Wandering Buddha, Cronin and Troxell prepare these elements in-house, and the effort pays off. The kimchi is hot enough to bring a tear to your eye, but it's a short burn that has you immediately reaching for the next bite.