Where Lush, Fiery Flavors of the East Thrive on the West Side of Phoenix

The fleet of banchan has landed.
The fleet of banchan has landed. Chris Malloy
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang

One of the amazing things to happen to the cuisines of the East was the introduction of the chile pepper. It's hard to imagine Korean, Chinese, and Thai without the chile. When its new levels of heat spread through the world and merged with the cuisines of the East, something happened. It's the same thing that happens when you bite into a pepper-flecked morsel at Cafe Ga Hyang in Glendale: magic.

Korean food celebrates the chile. Cafe Ga Hyang is one of the Valley's Korean classics. Dark as a cave, sitting sun-faded in a derelict strip mall, Cafe Ga Hyang is a monument to heat.

You have to plan accordingly.

One path: nonspicy dishes. If you order these, you must get them from end to end of your meal, or make sure they arrive before dishes with chiles come. This is because the impending heat will ruin your taste buds' ability to detect subtlety on any kind of non-hot level.

The other menu approach: spicy dishes. Chile heads, appreciators of flavor, and wise men and women will take this route. It catapults you to the heart of what makes eating fun. 

Duk boki, a classic Korean rice cake dish, makes a great starter. Gelatinous tubes of rice cake look like Roman candles cut into pieces. They swim in a red sauce that's dialed straight to hell with chiles, but that, amazingly, isn't owned by them. Though incendiary, the sauce has an elusive depth, a rounded quality, something of the heft and enigma of a mole. Fish cake slivers bring some funk. Vegetables bring snap or softness. Your mind, though, soars back to that sauce again and again.

Kimchi jigae, served in a hot stone bowl. - CHRIS MALLOY
Kimchi jigae, served in a hot stone bowl.
Chris Malloy
Sometime before your rice cakes, hopefully, a fleet of banchan will land on your table. Banchan are tiny side dishes, the hallmark of a Korean meal. They tend to spark a childlike glee, because you never know what they're going to be — and you never ordered them or did anything to deserve them.

At Cafe Ga Hyang, some are bound to include chiles. On a recent visit, classic cabbage kimchi brought fizz and funk. A cucumber kimchi was milder, with just enough heat to bring the wan vegetable to happy life.

Kimchi jigae, a stew made with fermented chiles and more of Korea's favorite fermented cabbage, delivers a lower current of heat. Its stone vessel been fired to such a furious temperature that the broth, sparse and red, bubbles away between the tofu, red peppers, and green peppers.

The kimchi flavor is diffuse, the spice thin. The lightly tangy broth's spice is low enough for the tofu cubes to contribute rather than suffocate. They're soft and have a vegetal flavor like fresh peas. In a way hard to trace, they taste more like bean sprouts than a banchan of actual bean sprouts.

Cafe Ga Hyang has an impressively wide range of Korean food. It may tease and disappoint you by not having the oxbone soup advertised on the restaurant's front, but it has stir fries and pancakes, galbi and elegant cold noodle dishes. You can come for bibimbap or barbecue, and you'd leave happy. But if you're craving a nose-to-throat burn of the most unholy and glorious kind, come here and seek heat.

Cafe Ga Hyang. 4362 West Olive Avenue, Glendale; 623-937-8550.
Tuesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; closed Monday.

The Essentials so far:
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate
40: Green chile at Casa Reynoso
39: Brûlée burger from Paradise Valley Burger Company
38: Hand-pulled noodles from China Magic Noodle House
37: Carne adovada sliders at Dick's Hideaway
36: Crispy Pig Ear and Amaro cocktails from Crudo
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy