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Photograph: Courtesy Anju

Chef Angel Barreto shares his deep love of Korean food at Anju

The celebrated D.C. chef can live without a lot of things but rice isn't one of them.

Will Gleason
Written by
Will Gleason

Angel Barreto, executive chef and partner of celebrated Korean restaurant Anju in Washington, D.C., has been in love with Korean food since he was a child. First exposed to the cuisine by his military parents, who were both stationed in the country, and the Korean communities he often encountered growing up, he has long been drawn to its deep commitment to traditional techniques, purposeful flavors and impressive variety.

“Most people think of Korean food as Korean barbecue, but—just like American food—there's such a large breadth and beauty to what Korean food is,” says Barreto. “And I think that's what I really love about it because you can go from Seoul to Busan, and there's a huge culture shift. It’s like going from New York to South Carolina.”

After spending six years at Wolfgang Puck’s The Source, Barreto brings a sense of culinary creativity to the Dupont Circle restaurant—balancing nods to cultural history with more avant-garde boundary-pushing in his always delicious dishes. Time Out recently spoke with the rising star about some current highlights on the menu, the one dish he always returns to and where you can buy the best Korean ingredients for your own home cooking.

How did your love of Korean food begin in your childhood?

I grew up with military parents and both of my parents were stationed in Korea. My dad grew up in a small family, and Korea was one of the first places he went right after he joined the military. Same thing with my mom, and my mom loved Korean food. I grew up eating kimbap and those sorts of items. I also had Korean friends growing up, and went over to their houses after school and their moms made kimchi-jjigae and different things.

How did you first get involved with Anju?

I was working for Wolfing Puck at The Source. It was crazy at that time—a big restaurant doing Korean, Thai, Japanese and Pan-Asian food. It was really, really cool to see. I stayed there for a long time—working my way up to executive sous chef. Then I did a 16-course Korean tasting menu downstairs, just because I love cooking Korean food. I always knew that’s what I wanted my end goal to be. And Danny, one of the partners at Anju, came in and was like, "Who's making all this Korean food?" 

Was there a type of Korean food you wanted to highlight at Anju? 

At Anju, we don't really pigeonhole ourselves. We can do whatever we want when it comes to Korean food. We have food from the 16th century all the way up to contemporary South Korean food. It really shows people the breadth of what Korean food can be, because what’s big at the moment—in New York and even in Korea—is modernizing Korean food for a broader audience. And at Anju, we play that balance of having both traditional Korean food and modern food.

What do you love about Korean food? 

I love that it takes a lot of time and care to get to one item. To make traditional soy sauce can take up to two to three years. Traditional gochujang takes up to two to three years. It's a food and a culture that has been created around the terroir of Korea with time and care. Very traditional Korean food always asks: How does this affect your body and your mind? Some of the colors you see in the food—red, green, yellow, brown—represent your heart, your lungs, your liver and your kidneys. There's a rhyme and reason to everything.

How do you balance pushing your culinary art forward while also honoring those traditions? 

It’s a dagger’s edge we always have to think about. There's this idea in Korean called Hansik. Hansik is traditional core values. So we always have to do a dish or take an idea that physically exists, and then make it our own. We change it a little bit because, even in Korea, that's what they're doing. For instance, we're doing Yukgaejang which is normally a spicy beef noodle soup. We're doing it basically 100% the same, but we just swap out the beef for lamb. Certain items, we'll just do twists on proteins you might not see. We've also done Jjajangmyeon, which is black bean noodles. And instead of doing it with beef, we've done it with duck. There are some items we'll push and go a little bit more avant-garde, but for the most part we try to stay grounded in the reality of what Korean food is. 

Is there a dish that you often find yourself returning to?

One of my favorite dishes is called Samgye-tang. Samgye-tang is essentially Korean chicken ginseng soup. To me, it's like how you want chicken noodle soup to taste on steroids because there's so much flavor built into it. The chicken itself is a small Cornish hen or a small bird. You take the cavity and you rub it with garlic, ginger, salt and pepper. And then you stuff it with dates, rice and garlic, and boil it very low and slow in that aromatic broth. That sticky rice gets really nice and soaks up all that flavor, and when you open it up, it spills into the soup and you have really juicy chicken.

What’s the one ingredient you couldn't live without?

Rice. In Korea, there's over 3,000 grains of rice in different regions, and they all taste completely different. Rice is really the lifeblood of Korean food. It's used in alcohol fermentation. It's used in everything. Rice, soy sauce and chilies. Those three items, you really, really have to have to have Korean food because they lead to so many things.

Do you have any tips for at-home cooks for sourcing high-quality ingredients?

Yeah, go to H Mart. H Mart is the best place, truthfully. You can go and get all your Korean ingredients. They have this giant poster of Korean recipes. You can literally take your phone and scan a QR code, and it leads you to a video and ingredients list you can buy in H Mart for different recipes. 

What’s your favorite dish on the menu right now at Anju and why?

I think it’s the Lamb Yukgaejang. We take vegetables and basically caramelize them in doenjang, which is a Korean soybean paste. Onions, garlic, ginger and scallions are all in that paste. Then, we use that as a veggie bouillon for our lamb soup. We take lamb shoulders and slowly braise them, while adding some of those same flavors and let that all marinate. Then we pull the meat apart and serve it with Korean style japchae noodles, fern bracken, onions and cabbage. You end up with a bubbling soup that has lamb meat, noodles and vegetables. Then we finish it off with some chopped raw mustard greens on top, and a little bit of black pepper and toasted sesame seeds. For the winter months, it's just really, really delicious. It's very comforting—almost like a hug for the wintertime.

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