Cheap Eats - Counter culture

L&M dishes out Korean goodness along with typical deli fare

With all the renovations going on in Midtown, it would be easy to forget about the little guys, or to force them out of the way to make room for the swank, sophisticated spaces with their fancy dishes and plush digs. Hopefully there's still room for the hole-in-the-wall places where you can get a bite to eat without anyone worrying about what you're wearing.

The L&M Deli, which opened recently in Midtown, is just that kind of place; suitable for a bodega in New York, but nestled in a nook right here in town.

Before you start looking for a sign or marker, don't. It's actually hidden inside the neighborhood Service Mart on Argonne Avenue. Normally a stop for those who forget their gallon of milk or can of cat food and don't want to trek back to the grocery store, the crowded aisles of canned goods and laundry detergent are now hiding a little kitchen in the back.

There's just enough room between the refrigerator and the counter for a couple of people to congregate and order. Behind the counter is a small grill, a fryer and a gas range big enough for a wok.

The paper menus list an assortment of typical deli items like a chicken salad sandwich ($2.99) and BLT ($1.99) or cheesecake, muffins and danishes. But right beside the potato salad in the display case is a bowl of kimchee and another of bean sprouts. This ain't your typical deli after all.

My friend decided to try the Philly cheesesteak, curious about with how the Korean cooks would prepare the Northern favorite. The thin slices of steak were stir-fried with lots of onions, banana peppers and oil and vinegar. The soft hoagie bread was slathered with mayo, mustard and topped with shredded lettuce and tomatoes. To all accounts it looked like a Philly steak, and was declared a "delicious mess" by him. It was lacking salt so he added a touch from packets available. In fact, several people ordering sandwiches asked for packets of salt and pepper, ingredients that must not be used much in preparation.

Despite the compliments on the sandwiches, I had my eyes set on the bulgolgi ($7.99). "You want bulgolgi?" the woman behind the counter asked. "I can make bulgolgi." One of the few Korean dishes that includes meat, bulgolgi, often termed Korean barbecue, is served fresh and hot.

A container of beef was opened and the slivers placed on the grill with chopped green bell peppers, sliced onions and carrots. A soy-based sauce mixed with garlic and other seasoning was squirted into the mix and stir-fried for a few minutes.

"It'll be about five minutes, you want to come back?" she asked. The dish is made to order and, when in a restaurant setting, oftentimes diners prepare their own beef at table grills. Here, it's a waiting game.

When finished, she scooped the items into a Styrofoam tray and began to look for side items. "You like kimchee? You like it fresh?" Kimchee, typically a pickled Chinese cabbage fermented in fish juice, garlic, ginger, red pepper paste and other spices, can be kept for long periods of time and becomes a bit sour after it has been stored. I opted for the fresher concoction as well as bean sprouts and a side of white rice instead of fried. I paid for the meal up front at the register next to the lottery tickets and then I searched for a stoop outside to sit on.

The shredded beef flanks were fully saturated with the sweet sauce and were rich in flavor. The meat remained tender despite being thin. The vegetables were tender but not overcooked, and the green peppers added more sweetness to the overall flavor of the dish. There were too many julienne sliced carrots in the dish, but they did offer a nice counterpoint to the sweet flavor of the sauce.

The side of kimchee was made up of the crunchy interior pieces of cabbage, which the woman behind the counter carefully selected, leaving the soft leafy pieces behind. It wasn't as hot as it could've been, but the pickled red pepper taste still offered a nice spice kick.

The bean sprouts were served in a tangled mass, long translucent sprouts with the floret endings still attached. The sprouts were tossed in a light peanut oil with traces of green onions and tasted very earthy. While decent enough as a side, I'd prefer to trade the sprouts for some extra kimchee.

The eclectic offerings don't only stick to Korean cuisine. Choices of beef, vegetable or chicken-fried rice also are available. The chicken-fried rice ($3.99) is unlike standard Chinese fare, which often has been scooped out of a dish where it has been sitting and contains only small diced carrots. L&M's fried rice is prepared on the spot with sliced onions, green peppers and carrots. The chicken is diced and fried separately before it's stir-fried into the mix. The sticky rice has a hint of sweet flavor, but is spiced up with black pepper. The large portion is a suitable meal on its own, but it also comes with two sides. On my second visit, I opted for the cucumber kimchee instead of the standard cabbage. The cucumber remained crisp, despite its pickling and was a cooling compliment to the red pepper spiciness.

The two Korean women behind the counter at L&M treat you like you're in their kitchen, and will cook up just about anything you want. During peak lunch hours, the aisles begin to cram with people waiting for their meal to be prepared. There are always pre-made options, but it may be best to call ahead for your dish if you don't like to wait.??