By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
But I was alone, and these servers weren't accustomed to solitary diners. Korean food (like the most traditional of Chinese and Thai and Vietnamese foods) is best served family-style, in large portions made for sharing. Owing to the language barrier bridged only incompletely by my hand signals and naked hunger, we engaged in a pantomime negotiation over what I could eat and what I couldn't. Short rib, okay, but not the pork and potato stew (for two only, or more) and not the honeycomb soaked in red-pepper sauce (because, maybe, the kitchen was out of it). Brisket? Brisket I could have, but I didn't want brisket. Pork belly, yes. Pork belly always yes. Unmarinated, uncured, the pork belly was slabbed, cut, laid out for me to cook on the grill in front of me. It was bacon but somehow different than bacon, bacon in a more pure, more piggish form, in the same way that the cubed rib steak marinated in Korean BBQ sauce (spicy and vaguely leafy in flavor) was like barbecue, only more.
Korean food has always confused me. The grill thing, that I get: plain meats, grilled over an open flame or thrown down against a hot cooking surface: This is peasant cuisine at its most unadulterated, street food civilized only by the addition of a roof, a waitress, some chairs. But I can't quite wrap my head around the cuisine itself — the basic mechanics of it, the flavors and spices, the seemingly willful adoption by Korean cooks of every nasty, impossible preparation. Buckwheat noodles are the hardest kind of noodle, the least glutinous, the most difficult to get right. Bean pastes and taro and tripes and tongues all require an extreme form of love and dedication to make edible. Cabbage is a tough vegetable to like even under the best circumstances, tougher still when combined with the science of long fermentation — of, essentially, the controlled rot that creates kimchi.
Over the long Labor Day weekend — my extended New Phone Book Day celebration — Sae Jong Kwan gave me a crash course in the eating of the unlovely, and I am a better, richer, more rounded man for it, even if I frequently had no idea what I was putting in my mouth. Under the generally helpful, occasionally thwarting ministrations of the floor staff, I avoided the grilled basics and delved into the soups and stews and combinations that make up more than half of the very long menu. Beef tripe with gray-brown noodles was good, but not as good as menudo to my untrained palate. Spicy crab soup was delicious; another soup, a mix of monkfish, mushrooms, whole branches of cilantro and translucent boiled cabbage, was as powerful as liquid kimchi, fiery-hot and chunky with nuggets of fish that had clenched in the broth into tiny, chewy fists of meat.
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 kept trying the kimchi itself but simply couldn't find a taste for it. It was too strong, too funky, and I carried the flavor of it on my lips for hours afterward and the smell on my skin for a day. There was a slab of what might've been water-chestnut Jell-O touched with a sesame dressing, marinated mushrooms that were either nicely woody or slimy and gross depending on the day. And then there was the oxtail soup — in a thick, yellowish and clotted broth, thickened (maybe) with egg white, flavored with lemongrass and green onion — which was amazing, the meat gelatinous with fat, knuckles of bone bobbing around in my bowl like small, rocky islands of beef in a gooey sea. I'd never tasted anything like it before (except pigs' feet, perhaps), and it was so good I couldn't stop eating.
On my third visit, I opted for takeout. There was another negotiation with another waitress. She wouldn't give me the pork belly to go, claimed (again) not to have any honeycomb. Together, she and I and a second waitress were able to agree that beef-bone soup with noodles would travel well, that egg stew with pollock might, that beef and vegetable dumplings (a house special) would be fine, and that, yes, I could have another order of oxtail soup to go.
I waited, sitting at the back of the small main dining room, watching the crowds that just kept coming and coming, watching the staff change out broken burners, pulling spares from an ancient rolling cart advertising Baileys Irish Cream martinis. It wasn't until I'd taken my order to the car that I smelled something like feet, rotting onions and old meat. I'd never noticed any odd odor at the restaurant, but at home, unwrapping bags, I was hit squarely with the stink of kimchi. Laura, who'd sniffed it as soon as I came through the door, retreated upstairs.
So now, with New Phone Book Day behind me and a pissed-off wife, this is what I will remember Labor Day weekend 2007 for: the hunger for new, inexplicable things, the joy of discovery, the taste of oxtail, and a smell that I just can't shake.
Like I said, I'm no good at holidays.