By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
I'd shown up mid-afternoon, in that long, dragging space between the lunch and dinner rushes, and although only two other tables were occupied, there were at least three waitresses on the floor. I ordered almost immediately, not knowing much about Korean food but trusting a menu full of tiny octopus in sesame oil and garlic, raw crab salad, ten different kinds of barbecue (all involving some combination of sesame oil and chile) and plenty of strangeness. Since I'd already had my sandwich at Johnny's, I was looking for something light. After scanning the soup page, I pointed to my choice: spicy crab soup, to round out a nice soup-and-sandwich, Korean/American combo. My waitress nodded, smiled and retreated. And I settled in to wait.
There is no such thing as a quick Korean meal -- not if it's done right. First, I don't think anything in Han Kang's kitchen is made until someone actually orders it. Okay, maybe the rice and some of the sauces, but nothing else, and you could taste the freshness in everything -- those raw, bare flavors you get only when something is brought straight from the stovetop to the table. And second, every meal comes with a minimum half-dozen sides. No more than a bite here, a swallow there, but pulling them together takes time, like coordinating a whole flight of amuses to arrive alongside the main plate.
While I waited, I watched the big TV. It was tuned to an Asian soap opera, and apparently, Asian (as well as French and Spanish, and probably Bulgarian) soap operas use the same composer as the one who writes music for American soap operas. So while I couldn't understand a single word, I was still able to follow the action and know that when the thumpy electric bass started playing, the bad guy (in dark suit and sunglasses) was plotting to steal the girlfriend of the small, bookish guy in the toy store. Every time the cellos and violins started up, the kitchen staff and servers would come out to see who was going to get the girl.
Spicy crab soup:
Bi bim bop: $7.99
My soup and sides hit the table -- its old, wooden top heliographed with circular burn marks from other hot bowls of broth -- just as the bad guy showed up at the bookish guy's house for the big, dramatic sit-down. I was hooked. At that moment, I was about as far from Denver as I could get without buying a plane ticket. Without taking my eyes off the screen, I dipped my spoon into a soup that had no doubt been started the minute I ordered it, and not a second before. It was spicy (Koreans, I've learned, don't eat anything without a big kick of chile paste, pod or powder), deep and smoky-hot, but also carefully constructed so that experiencing the spiciness was like walking down a long hallway with many turns, a different, deeper, stronger taste lurking around each one. The first flavor was crab: Four huge crab quarters, still in the shell, had been submerged and boiled up in the stock, with tiny shreds of meat flaking off and dissolving, lending their sweet sea funk to the broth. There were also bright stabs of green onion; earthy, sour bits of cabbage; cubes of pasty bean curd; tiny shrimps no bigger than my pinkie nail. Bean sprouts lent texture and a murky, deep solidity to the flavors, accented by wilted greens and the occasional sweet spike of carrot.
On the side came kimchi, of course, soft and briny and too powerful for my beans-and-wienies gaijinpalate (see Bite Me). Other little bowls held soft greens (collard or mustard) striped with red chile; chopped lettuce hearts in a delicious red chile, garlic and sesame oil dressing; three slices of bean curd dressed with more of the same; boiled potatoes coated in a creamy sauce that was almost a rémoulade; and something that was either very sugary shredded daikon or very watery jicama. Which didn't matter to me -- I threw it in the soup anyway, stirring the whole mess around with my chopsticks.With those chopsticks and my big spoon, I could manage everything in the cauldron but the crab shells, which I just knew would be packed with soft, sweet, beautiful crab meat gently flavored by the broth. And as much as I am sometimes forced to look like the big, stupid American, gracelessly stabbing away at some strange food with a chopstick in each balled fist, I honestly try to avoid that whenever I can. So I poked at the shells, prodded them, indelicately whacked at them with my spoon, and even tried pinning them against the side of the bowl and going at them like Edward Scissorhands with the chopsticks, but nothing worked.
On TV, the soap opera had ended. The other tables had cleared out, and it was just me and the restaurant's staffers, clustered around two tables sharing big bowls of long, cold buckwheat noodles and broth that filled the whole place with the smell of garlic and roasted sesame. They were watching a game show now, something involving six men and six women who -- near as I could tell -- were asked embarrassing questions, then forced to dance (badly) in front of a heckling studio audience when they refused to answer. The staffers were laughing, pointing, giggling behind their hands and not paying the slightest attention to me. So I finally gave up on any sense of decorum and started breaking open the crab with my bare hands. I'd dig in with a chopstick, hook some meat, drop it into the broth, then add rice (my favorite kind: short-grain, plump and sticky) before scooping it all up with my spoon.