by Eric Ginsburg
When a friend whose parents own a Japanese restaurant suggests you grab lunch somewhere that specializes in the cuisine, you listen. And when a different friend whose parents also run a third Japanese restaurant in town is excited to dine at the same place, you have a winner.
But the thing about Don Japanese on Tate Street in Greensboro is that the best food here is Korean.
When Tim Tsujii, who works for the Guilford County Board of Elections, introduced me to Don more than a year ago, he recommended I order the bulgogi don, a bowl of sizzling rice served in a hot stone cauldron and topped with thinly sliced and marinated beef, onions, zucchini, shiitake mushrooms and carrots. And Monday, when I returned to what is now a personal staple with this newspaper’s editorial interns, Sayaka Matsuoka ordered the same thing.
The Korean dish, like other rice bowl options at Don, is so hot thanks to the stone it comes in that each bite needs a moment to cool. That first trip with Tim, I added a thick layer of the house mayonnaise-based white sauce to help with temperature control, stirring the bowl’s contents to avoid the rice at the bottom becoming too crispy. But these days, I throw some hot sauce in the mix, too.
The bowl is hot enough to cook the raw egg cracked in the center of the bibimbap, another all-star Korean dish at Don that is served with kimchee, beef, bean sprouts, chives and shiitake mushrooms. It’s not far off the bulgogi don, but the color variety makes it visually captivating while the egg and kimchee add depth that some favor to the paper-thin strips of zucchini and almost equally flat carrot.
It’s not that the Japanese fare isn’t an excellent choice, particularly the don katsu don, a donburi dish with pork cutlet strips, cooked egg and onion in dashi sauce. It doesn’t come in a sizzling stone bowl either, which may make it more accessible for some. And Sayaka speaks highly of the unagi don, a Japanese dish with barbecued freshwater eel (it tastes like fish) and green onion served with eel sauce over rice. But she can make that at home, she said, as she ordered the bulgogi bowl.
Don — which means “bowl” in Japanese — shares an exterior door with Coffeeology. It is often overlooked by college kids on the strip who gravitate towards nearby chains, by burnouts at New York Pizza and by the rest of the city that generally doesn’t think of the stretch near UNCG and Greensboro College as a beacon for high-quality or unique food. And if they do, it’s to mention the petite but enjoyable lunch buffet at India Palace nearby. This, dear friends, is a serious mistake.
That’s because, despite the strange choice to play dubstep and similar electronic music, Don is one of the best that the Triad has to offer.
It’s a sister restaurant to Sushi Republic — the two are actually owned in part by two sisters — which is Tate Street’s classiest dining option, and one of the neighborhood’s best meals alongside the subs at Slices. But not only is Don more unique and affordable, it has more character. Attribute it in part to the bamboo mats as part of the booths and as hanging dividers between tables, as well as the ever-present owner in his cowboy hat and vest. It’s also due to the complimentary ice cream, fruit and cracker at the end of the meal, a welcome gift particularly after a hot meal.
There’s more to explore on the menu, including seaweed and tuna tataki salads, green tea-mint or mango-mochi ice cream, shoyu ramen, salmon teriyaki, a tasty vegetable don, spicy tuna don and eight saké choices. But whatever you do, don’t ignore the Korean food amidst the worthwhile Japanese selection.
Visit Don Japanese Asian Restaurant at 423 Tate Street (GSO) or find it on Facebook.