Sometimes we go out to restaurants to be pampered, to indulge in elegant multi-course meals in luxurious surroundings. Other times, we seek out restaurants where having to work for our pleasure makes the meal even more delicious, the memory more delightful.
The Golden Pig in Cecil falls into that latter category.
This tiny Korean restaurant has acquired quite a reputation in the 18 months since it opened. A trip to this Washington County town near the Allegheny border has become a calling card of sorts for Pittsburgh foodies, and a number of local culinary professionals have been making pilgrimages to bask in the warm presence of Yong Kwon over plates of her home-made Korean food.
The food is quite tasty, especially dishes such as kimchi chigae, a simmering pot of spicy kimchi and tofu soup, studded with smoky bits of bacon ($8.95); and the spicy noodles for two, a fiery pasta salad dressed in a red pepper sauce and filled out with sliced banana peppers, zucchini, yellow squash and carrot, topped with rectangles of toasted dry seaweed sheets of nori ($7.95).
2 stars = Very good
2 1/2 stars = Very good+
1 star = Good
2 stars = Very good
3201 Millers Run Road, Cecil, Washington County
- Hours: Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
- Basics: Authentic Korean flavors served with warmth and enthusiasm in a tiny storefront in Cecil.
- Recommended dishes: Korean pancakes, man-du dumplings, fried Korean sweet potatoes, spicy noodle salad for two, kimchi chigae, jop-chae, oh jing uh bockeum (spicy squid), kalbi, vegetable fried rice.
- Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-7.95; dinner entrees, $4.95-$15.95; no dessert.
- Summary: Not wheelchair-accessible; credit cards accepted; no reservations; BYOB, no corkage.
- Noise level: Low to medium-loud.
As for hospitality, there is no denying Mrs. Kwon's charms. She has a way of making a brief conversation feel like a hug.
But some of the Golden Pig's appeal is because it feels more like being invited to someone's home rather than a restaurant.
At a friend's dinner party, no one minds mismatched cutlery or the long wait between the main course and dessert. In Mrs. Kwon's restaurant-cum-dining room, it's easy to look past cramped seating and a loud air conditioner.
Tables consist of two counters with bar chairs, and two tall tables that can seat four, albeit a bit uncomfortably. I've concluded that the best seats in the house are those at the counter facing the kitchen. Not only do you get the best view and the most opportunities to converse with Mrs. Kwon, you're also out of range of the air conditioning's somewhat arctic blast. A shelf above this counter displays pictures of Mrs. Kwon's family, as well as an impressive array of ceramic, metal and plastic pigs, all gifts from happy customers.
Help yourself to drinks from the refrigerator, including bottles of water. Just let Mrs. Kwon know what you've had. The restaurant is BYOB, and there are plenty of goblets for wine, but no ice buckets, so plan accordingly -- there's plenty of room under those tall tables and counters for a small cooler.
Korean meals are typically served all together, so appetizer-type dishes consist mostly of lighter soups and a few fried snacks. Korean pancakes are simple, but delicious, bits of kimchi and vegetables suspended between a double layer of crisped batter ($6.95, potatoes or hot green peppers can be substituted for the kimchi). Mrs. Kwon's batter tastes a bit eggier than some, making the pancakes a bit more substantial. Some kind of dipping sauce would be nice with these, but dabbing on a little of the hot pepper sauce, available on every table, is a reasonable substitute.
They're listed as an entree, but the man-du -- fried dumplings of finely chopped beef, kimchi, broccoli inside an impressively delicate skin -- would also make an excellent appetizer, easily shared among four ($10.95).
Entrees in general are substantial, and come with three banchan for the table, a spicy-sour cabbage kimchi, some sweet pickled daikon radishes and Korean coleslaw, thinly sliced cabbage and carrots in a spicy vinegar-based dressing.
These excellent sides have the effect of dressing up even the simplest of the entrees, like the Kalbi, marinated and grilled beef short ribs ($15.95). Typically, these are served on the bone, but here they've been cut into small, square steaks. Medium-rare, as Mrs. Kwon recommended, they were sweet, meaty and satisfying, a cut above the beef bulgogi, which was a bit tough.
Korean restaurants don't always cater well to vegetarians, but despite the small menu, Mrs. Kwon manages to offer multiple enticing choices, like Jop-chae, a light stir fry of sweet potato noodles with a delicate, slightly gelatinous texture, intertwined with thickly sliced zucchini, summer squash and carrots, and chunky florets of broccoli, covered in a shower of sesame seeds ($9.95).
The stir-fried vegetables and tofu, which I didn't get to try, comes with the same abundant assortment of vegetables, and looked delicious from my perch near the kitchen ($9.50).
Broiled squid is one of the best and most frequently recommended dishes. Quickly cooked to keep it tender, thick slices of the squid are tossed with the same spicy red pepper sauce as the noodle salad, along with strips of zucchini and squash, which add just a touch of sweetness ($12.95).
Most entrees come with steamed rice, or with fried rice for a $2 surcharge. The pleasantly light vegetable fried rice seemed to get just a quick stir-fry, and the rice was filled out with chopped broccoli, carrots, green peas and egg cooked into paper-thin omelet, sliced into small rectangles.
Dishes really are cooked to order, and it seems impossible that one person can do so many jobs and still keep a constant, genuine smile on her face, but Mrs. Kwon really does do it all. She is a whirl, moving, cooking, taking orders, always calling out "How do you like it?" a few minutes after dishes are served.
It's a long drive from some parts of the city, but worth the trip. Since the Golden Pig doesn't take reservations, there may be a wait, but Mrs. Kwon cooks and serves at an impressive clip, so most meals are relatively quick.
If you need another reason to head to Cecil, a well-timed visit can coincide with the Original Night Farmer's Market, which is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. until November.