Live Octopus, Steamed Seefood, and Assorted Robster. Sik Gaek in Flushing.

by Jason Roth on September 30, 2009

I admit it. Bad spelling and bad grammar on an Asian restaurant menu never fail to amuse me. At Sik Gaek restaurant in Flushing (map), however, I would have to postpone my laughter. “Seefood” and “robster” would be laughed at only after I was able to muffle my pansy-ass yelping about the plate full of squirming pieces of live baby octopus. This was some weird stuff.

Within a couple minutes of placing our order, the cook had prepared the dish for us. I’m not exactly talking about lobster bisque here, as preparation for this dish consisted of hacking up a live invertebrate with a cleaver and throwing it on a plate with lettuce, jalapeno slices, and a sprinkle of salt or pepper. What you’re wondering, though, if you’ve never seen or eaten this dish, is how much your food is actually moving on the plate. So for that, let’s go straight to the video:

Now, I’m no Andrew Zimmern, but I’ve eaten a few strange things in my time. So far, though, food with its own self-generated movement is placing first is the strange list.

Here’s another quick clip of the squirming tentacle pieces:

Seeing the twenty or twenty-five pieces of octopus not just twitching, which I guess is what I expected, but twisting, curling, and sucking itself to the plate and to my chopsticks, was a disconcerting sight, to say the least. At times, it was difficult to pick up a piece because its suction cups were stuck so strongly to the surface of the plate. While struggling at one point, a passing waiter asked me if I wanted a fork. All I could think was: Jesus Christ, the white guy’s eating a goddamn living being and you still think he needs a fork? Granted, I was being too sensitive. The fork would have helped.

Once you pry a piece of the octopus off the plate or are able to hold it, still squirming, between your chopsticks, the next step is to transport it to one of the two sauces. One sauce is salty, garlicky, and oily. The other is more of a standard Korean pepper paste. Whatever your choice (or whatever is closest), you dunk your worm-like bite and quickly plop it in your mouth. If you start chewing immediately, you won’t notice too much happening in your mouth. But if you let it sit there, you’ll feel it, either twisting freely or even sucking itself to your tongue or cheek. As strange as that might sound, I still say the sight of the plate beforehand is far freakier than the actual act of eating it.

Twitching octopus looks so innocent in a photograph.

Twitching octopus looks so innocent in a still photograph.

Now let me address the question of whether this dish is actually “live”. Surprisingly, yes.

There is one piece of undeniable evidence for this fact sitting on your plate: the octopus’s head. (On the top right in the first video, and on the bottom left in the second.) The head, along with every slice of its eight arms, is moving as well. Perhaps the eyes turned my wife off, but for the record, I did attempt to eat the head. The only thing that stopped me from succeeding was the fact that sharks are the ones with the shark teeth. It was like chewing a gooey, rubber ball. After several chomps on this rather large, rubbery mouthful, without successfully putting it out of its misery, I figured I would retire before nausea fully set in. I removed the octopus head from my mouth in approximately the same form it had entered, and let it get back to the peace and quiet of suffocating and wondering where its legs were.

I had read about Anthony Bourdain and David Chang visiting Sik Gaek. It sounded like a decent Korean restaurant in general, but the main draw for me was a chance to sample the dish I thought could only be eaten in Korea. It turns out there are actually several reasons to visit and return to Sik Gaek, though I do have a few caveats.

I was endeared to this place immediately upon stepping inside.

Hey, they gave me a free beer. I'm on line but I'm not complaining.

Hey, they gave me a free beer. I'm on line but I'm not complaining.

I loved its loud, hectic, bar-like atmosphere. It certainly didn’t feel like a typical American, or even Korean-American, restaurant. The second thing that sold me on Sik Gaek was not the line waiting to get in (I recommend you show up on the early side), but the fact that free beer and a snack were offered to everyone waiting. For the sake of accuracy, I should say that the beer was Coors Light, but it was beer and it was free. The snack was fried squid, tastier than the live version of it’s cousin which I was about to consume, and two plates of squid were presented while we waited in line. Fortunately, the wait for two at around 7:00 on a Saturday was only about 20 minutes.

Panchan (spell it as you please) was minimal, but I don’t hold that against the restaurant. Just because other Korean restaurants bestow you with lots of free pre-appetizer appetizers, I don’t, or at least I try not to, hold it against anyone. In this case, I’m preoccupied with the noise and hustle and bustle of what’s going on around me. And yes, I found a linguistic reason to laugh.

See? I don't make this shit up.

See? I don't make this shit up. Even if I do wonder whether someone's pulling my chain.

After the whole live octopus incident, we enjoyed a much more normal experience in our stack of pancake. That’s right, one pancake in a stack, but one damn good pancake. And granted, it was a clam pancake. (Mrs. Butterworth would be hanging herself off a bridge before she made any contact with this.) But with the scallions and jalapenos, and the crispy, delicious dough, this was the best Korean pancake I’ve ever tasted. This alone was worth a trip back.

I like pancakes. And I like Korean pancakes. But this is one good pancake.

I like pancakes. And I like Korean pancakes. But this is one good pancake.

The caveat is about to come, in the form of a huge pot of seefood. I mean seafood. It looked both impressive and scary.

Nothing against Koreans. But send my next pot of seafood to Massachusetts for steaming.

Nothing against New York Koreans. But send my next pot of seafood to Massachusetts for steaming.

For forty-five bucks, my wife and I got a pot of steaming mussels, clams, conches, snails, crabs, and lobster. Considering this was a Korean restaurant, I was shocked that some form of pepper didn’t enter this equation in some way. But it didn’t. The problem was that only the muscles, and to some extent, the clams, were the only edible items in this ridiculously sized vessel. Sik Gaek has mastered putting shellfish in a pot, as well as setting a fire under a pot at your table; the quandary they’ve yet to decipher is when to take the goddamn pot off the aforementioned steam. I might not be so harsh, except that this was the very complaint I had read about before visiting the restaurant, which means this is a pattern. And just to make sure it’s clear, look at this bone-dry crab meat:

Quantity, good. Quality, dry. I'm a buffet guy, but give me something edible.

Quantity, good. Quality, dry. And I'm a buffet guy.

Somewhere along the line, someone showed up with a small pot of… what’s that? More eggs. This time, an omelette. Not delicious, but free is always acceptable.

Omelette. Just what you need when you have way more food than you can eat.

Omelette in a pot. Just what you need when you're about to send back eighteen pounds of uneaten shellfish.

Once we finished up our seafood (meaning, once we emptied out a few shells and asked for a doggie bag), we happily took advantage of what every customer gets along with his or her seefood hot pot. That’s right, it’s seefood soop, made in the very same pot. Truthfully, this soup was better than the seafood itself. A broth was created with what remained in the pot, and noodles and fresh scallions were added. The result was a pot full of soup bigger than the two (or even four) of us could have eaten. Flavorful broth, a few bites of fresh scallion, and endless, slurpable noodles. My recommendation: tell them to throw the muscles into this soup and skip past the actual shellfish.

Finally, a delicious seafood flavor. And noodles.

Finally, a delicious seefood flavor. And noodles.

So, all in all:

  • Free beer and squid: good
  • Fried eggs: good
  • Pancake: 아름다운
  • Muscles: good
  • Clams: parts good, parts not
  • Noodle soup: yummy
  • Service and atmosphere: awesome
  • Live octopus: too fucking strange.

I’ll be back. Next time, though, I’ll see what they do with the land-dwelling creatures.

Typical Korean hours.

Typical Korean restaurant hours.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike T October 1, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Your account of trying to eat a live octopus head actually made me nautious; good job! (I assume the beak was removed…?) Also, is your misspelling “mussel” part of the “seefood” joke?!

Jason Roth October 1, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Nope, it was a misspelling. Fixed, thanks. (My misspellings aren’t quite as funny to me as those of the foreign born.) But now I’m wondering whether your misspelling of “nauseous” was a crack… I’m also wondering if making a reader nauseous should be considered a sign of good food writing.

Good point about the beak; I didn’t notice one, so yes, I guess it was removed. By the way, if you want to get even more nauseous, watch this video. An entire, unchopped octopus is eaten.

Have I mentioned I’m done eating live octopus?

Mike T October 7, 2009 at 5:42 am

Not a crack, just an honest mistake (timed by my subconscious, apparently, for maximum irony)…

Yes, the quality of your writing definitely contributed to my nausea, but most was due to knowing that the head of an octopus contains its digestive system. On the other hand, the video you linked presented no problems for me.

Anna October 8, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Hm. You’re better than me. I don’t think I could have done it.

KIM November 18, 2009 at 1:08 pm

awesome write-up… the picture of the seefood menu had me crying! hilarious. my husband insists we go there for his birthday dinner tonight.

Jason Roth November 18, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Happy Birthday, Kim. Say “hi” to Jimmy for me while you’re there. But say it before you eat his head. He’s the cute one that likes to hang out in the back of the tank.

D. Couch May 7, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Ocean animals feel pain just as mammals do, and they struggle desperately to get away when they are being killed or injured. It is not any different from eating a pig or a puppy alive. I don’t ever want to know how people can be so incredibly cruel to the beings with which we share the planet.

Jason Roth May 17, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Maybe you could get some feedback on the issue from this octopus catching and eating a shark. I bet he’d like pigs and puppies, too.

Christy August 22, 2010 at 2:03 am

That sounds like a wonderful experience! I might go there sometime too! By the way the food portion looks HUMONGOUS! How much was your total bill afterwards? haha.

Jason Roth August 22, 2010 at 5:48 pm

It’s a fun place, that’s for sure, but I guess the memory of that big bucket of over-steamed shellfish hasn’t been enough to bring me back yet. Don’t remember the bill, but I’m sure the $44.99 bucket of seefood was the priciest thing we got.

freda March 5, 2011 at 10:14 pm

this octopus restaurant in Japan looks nice from the outside!
http://www.japansugoi.com/wordpress/tako-restaurant-in-akasaka-tokyo/

Jason Roth March 6, 2011 at 7:15 pm

I guess all countries like using cute, cartoon versions of the species they’re about to consume.

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