Update: We attended this venue in November 2018 and some details may have altered since then.
When a 20-seater restaurant in the heart of suburbia that only offers three dishes, with no bookings, no website and no advertising is never with an empty seat, you know it has to be good. Mr Lee’s Foods is well worth the trip to Ringwood if you’re a fan of pork; all dishes are derived from this glorious animal, offering a delicious insight into the economical traditions of Korean dining, utilising an unconscious, innately cultural nose-to-tail philosophy. Needless to say, this is a vegetarian no-go zone.
A house-made soondae (Korean blood sausage), steamed pork belly and dwaeji guk bap (pork soup with rice) are the only things on offer at Mr Lee’s. Soondae, for the uninitiated, is nothing like the European versions of dense, sweetly spiced and irony black pudding. Soondae may be a sausage made using the blood of the pig, but that is where the similarities end. The version served at Mr Lee’s is a South Korean variety where glass noodles act as the binding agent (unlike flour, rice or oats in Europe) for the garlic and ginger-spiked blood, steamed in its natural pig intestine casing. The result is a swollen, glossy, mild-flavoured, bouncy sausage that arrives sliced, alongside steamed slivers of liver and fatty intestine ready to be dipped in a roasted sesame salt or an umami bomb of salted, fermented baby shrimp.
For the less adventurous, fatty cuts of pork belly come simply steamed, still attached to its joyously gelatinous and fatty cap of skin. Dip these slices in the accompanying doenjang (soy bean paste) lifted with fragrant sesame oil, or enhance them with reeds of garlic chives and shavings of raw garlic. It may look confronting at first, but this interpretation will give you a real appreciation for the soft, wobbly, melting qualities that Asians prize pork belly for.
The dwaeji guk bap is available in three iterations; plain with sliced pork, with soondae and organ meat, or soondae, organ meat and steamed pork belly. Each guk bap comes in a hot stone bowl, a spa of milky white pork broth topped with spring onions, garlic chives, a knot of thin wheat noodles and your choice of meats. As part of the meal, you also receive a bowl of white rice, house-made radish kimchi and a mixture of fresh green chillies tossed through more of that salty doenjang. The broth itself is clean and mild despite it appearance, so salt, black pepper, ground perilla seeds and a chilli paste is on the table for you to customise the soup to your liking. The side dishes of kimchi and chillies not only add complexity to the guk bap if eaten with the soup, but also offer refreshing counterpoints to the richness of the meal when eaten between sips. Don’t hesitate to bring your empty bowls to the counter for a refill - it’s all part of the dining experience.
It may be intimidating to get on the Eastern Freeway and drive 45 minutes out of the city, only to dine at a mostly self-service, all-Korean restaurant specialising in offal, where English is the second language. Trust us, it is worth it. Venture outside of the city grid, prepare yourself to try something different and you’ll be rewarded with the perfect simplicity of Korean comfort food.
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