In London, Korean food is truly having its moment in the sun. From street stands on Tottenham Court Road to the ever expanding chains of Bibimbap and On The Bab, Korean cuisine’s already significant position within the culturally diverse zeitgeist looks as if it will continue to grow in 2019. What about in Oxford? There is Jeong’s Dosirak, which, despite its pretty interior and authentic feel, is often overlooked within the maze of the Covered Market. So where in Oxford can Korean food really stand out and garner the acclaim it deserves? Simple: Pan Pan.
You may have not heard of it, and tucked away on St Clement’s Street in Cowley you may have not even seen it. I certainly had not, until one day I found myself critically hungover and craving Korean food. A quick Google search, and next thing you know I am stumbling into Cowley, alcohol steaming off my body. In the midst of my disorientation, I found Pan Pan to be a welcome refuge, and it’s Korean Fried Chicken to be ever so good. Crunchier than at Jeong’s, and packed with more flavour than almost anywhere else, my satisfaction at that moment was immeasurable.
Nonetheless, given that I was not in an appropriate psychological state to write a comprehensive review of Pan Pan back then, I decided to wait and then return. Slightly more clear-headed this time around, I discovered that, even if on that first occasion my brain was fuzzy, my taste buds had certainly not betrayed me. Pan Pan was and still is a fantastic little restaurant.
Firstly, let me explain that Pan Pan is not wholly a Korean restaurant. Part of its charm is its ability to harmoniously merge the foods of different nations into a long but relatively coherent menu.
From its splendid incarnation of a Taiwanese pork belly Bao to rich Japanese Yaki Udon, I was thoroughly impressed by the diversity on show.
However, since this review is inevitably based on my initial impression of Pan Pan, I had to make sure the Korean food would not let me down. Some Kimchi to start, a traditional side dish dating back around 2000 years. Nothing complicated: fermented cabbage, carrots, garlic and ginger, all lathered in spice. Tangy and punchy, 2000 years of tradition upheld.
Next, the main event: the Bibimbap. Bibimbap, like Kimchi, is a crucial staple in Korean cuisine, traditionally eaten on the eve of the lunar year.
A dish packed with ingredients, its very creation is symbolic of harmony. The darker elements, such as the shitake mushrooms, are representative of the North and the kidneys. The redness of the carrots and chillies symbolises the South and the heart, with the greenness of the cucumber represents the East and the liver. Finally the white of the egg is the centre, the stomach. Undemanding, unassuming and nicely balanced, Pan Pan did the Bibimbap justice. Crunchy carrots and cucumber, tender bulgogi beef and the heat of the chillies come together for a joyous combination. No petty refinement, no sprinkle of this or that, no huge flames erupting from charcoal grills that you may find in the capital where aesthetics occasionally supersedes flavour. Simple and, therefore, all the more fun, Pan Pan stayed true to a prolific culinary tradition that has often gone unnoticed in this country.
For a street loaded with real-estate agents and newsagents from the 1980s, Pan Pan is also miraculously intimate. Smiley staff, soft music, dim lights – I could have been here for hours. It really is a wonderful place, a restaurant where hangovers, rain and the general drab of winter can be put aside, supplanted by fantastically joyful food.