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I've always had trouble with holidays. I don't like the pressure, the expectations; I'm just bad at them. One of the many reasons I took such comfort in the restaurant business was because holidays really didn't exist within its cloisters. Cooks cook while the rest of the world celebrates — that's the general rule. But more than that, the kitchens I knew were places of routine, of day-in, day-out sameness where any alteration in the trusted order of things was met with suspicion or true superstitious fright. Holidays represented change, and change was always bad. In the kitchen, nothing ever changed for the better. There were no abatements, stays, raises or sudden happy miracles. There was only entropy — the slow, steady collapse toward utter chaos — and we kept fighting for stasis, for calm and order and efficiency, through obsessive planning, repetition and reflex.
2680 S. Havana St.
Aurora, CO 80014
Marinated honeycomb: $7.95
Pork belly BBQ: $7.95
Pork and potato stew: $23.95
Oxtail soup: $9.95
Monkfish soup: $13.95
Crab soup: $13.95
Beef-bone soup: $9.95
I've never gotten over my instinctive dislike of traditional holidays, and instead make up my own — personal, private mileposts on the calendar with their own rituals and rites of observation, celebrated mostly alone. One such holiday landed on the Thursday right before Labor Day weekend: New Phone Book Day.
I love New Phone Book Day. First, it's an excuse to do my Steve-Martin-in-The-Jerk impression ("The new phone books are here! The new phone books are here!") that, as with all of my impressions, Laura tolerates with a steely, forced good humor. Second, New Phone Book Day is always a surprise: I never know when it's coming. These days, with so many different companies, New Phone Book Day comes four or five times a year, sometimes twice in a month, sometimes not at all for six. Finally, New Phone Book Day provides me with a host of new restaurants to investigate.
Never has a New Phone Book Day gone by when I didn't find something interesting — bizarre Indian tandoori restaurants serving pizza and tamales, time-warp strip-mall Chinese operations still offering chow mein and eggy wonton soup, Mongolian restaurants staffed by Vietnamese cooks and existing only to serve apartment complexes full of Russian or Ethiopian immigrants. This most recent New Phone Book Day was no exception. I found my unexpected gift right on page 867: Sae Jong Kwan, also known as House of Korean BBQ.
Vagaries of the telephone directory publishing industry aside, any ethnic restaurant that takes out a big ad in a phone book is trying hard to broaden its customer base. The restaurants that work solely to serve their own communities — and which, in some cases, will even go so far as to deny service to a handsome young restaurant critic on the prowl — simply won't spend the money. But the restaurants that do — that, despite an unusual cuisine, an intimidating menu and a language most commonly spoken thousands of miles away, are still willing to hang it all out there in a big phone-book ad — often have something that they're very proud of, something that they want to share not just with their own people, but with everyone.
Something like beef tongue in a paste of sesame oil, salt and pepper. Like bulgogi beef sizzling on a tabletop grill, shrimp pancakes or gomtang beef consommé. Sitting at my dining room table reading Sae Jong Kwan's menu, running my finger down the pale yellow page, I was getting hungry, excited. Gui, dakgui, soo joo — I had no idea what any of this stuff was and couldn't wait to find out. This is why I love New Phone Book Day.
I closed the book and ran out the door, headed for the heavily strip-malled, Vietnamese/Korean/American section of Havana Street where Sae Jong Kwan sits in the elbow of a long string of plazas in which you can find anything from French pastries, porno and mountain bikes to Japanese manga, shabu-shabu, Vietnamese pho, Chinese herbalists and acupuncture cures for gout. There are bars along this stretch that I've been thrown out of, pool halls I will not venture into on a bet and, in a tucked-away section near the HoneyBaked Ham store, what was about to become my favorite place in the city for Korean BBQ.
And not just for Korean BBQ. For Korean soup, for Korean fish, for Korean bacon and "black goat meat with assorted vegetables and spicy." Over the past few years, I'd driven by Sae Jong Kwan probably a hundred times, eaten at places on either side of it, but never ventured inside. From the outside, the restaurant was dark, alien, existing behind smoked glass and the (to me) impenetrable, harsh scratchings of Korean writing — a system obviously developed by someone with an intense fear of curved lines. But now, when I finally opened the door, I found Sae Jon Kwan bright, loud, full of pale wood, private booths, private rooms and crowded in a way that I found momentarily disorienting. Where were all these people coming from? How did they all know about this spot that I had overlooked?
The customers were not exclusively Korean. They were not exclusively anything. Groups of teenagers, families, huge parties of ten, twelve, sixteen, all crowded around tables pushed together to accommodate their number. There were mixed tables of Asians, Americans, college kids, a party in the back of what looked like businessmen getting weird and knocking back small glasses of beers I'd never seen before, and another party of long-haired white guys calling for more food, more food and more food.
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