I ran out of books on Father's Day. I read fast, so this happens a lot, but like a drunk who always keeps a fresh bottle on hand for when his current one runs low, I like to have another book in the pipeline before I hit the last chapter. This time, though, I just didn't plan ahead. So I went to the bookshelves and picked something worth a second read.
I chose Junky, William Burroughs's quasi-autobiographical account of a life spent banging morphine, and took it with me to Johnny's Diner for my Sunday-afternoon meditation. Usually I go where I can have a couple of pots of coffee and smoke a few cigarettes -- Breakfast King, Tom's Diner, even Village Inn -- but Johnny's makes a good, greasy bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, and even though I can't smoke there, one of those monsters and a bright-pink cherry shake is worth the sacrifice.
On Father's Day, the place was a madhouse. Shell-shocked dads who'd obviously been awakened at some godawful hour by their screeching brood were staggering around the crowded plastic-and-Americana dining room, ferrying trays of cheeseburgers and Denver omelettes between the pass-through window and the tables. Over-excited children were barfing milkshakes in the aisles. I saw one dad wandering zombie-like toward the doors, a kid in each arm, still wearing a cardboard cut-out tie on a string around his neck with HAPPY FATHERS DAY written on it in glitter paint and macaroni; another dad sat staring wistfully out the window at the gleaming, candy-apple-red classic 'Vette parked by the front door while his daughter tried to cram a breakfast burrito up her nose.
1910 South Havana Street,
Hour s: 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. daily
Spicy crab soup:
Bi bim bop: $7.99
And then there was me, tucked into a corner booth, quietly eating my sandwich and reading about the perils of morphine addiction. I spend a lot of time now in shirts and ties nibbling escargot and ahi and microgreens, and while I love every minute, it sometimes feels like a rejection of my baloney-on-white-bread upbringing. Places like Johnny's are where I go to reconnect, to recharge the memory cells of a hundred family meals eaten at places just like this. And Burroughs? Well, he's a touchstone to a different part of my past.
According to Wild Bill: "As the geologist looking for oil is guided by certain outcroppings of rock, so certain signs indicate the near presence of junk. Junk is often found adjacent to ambiguous or transitional districts...stores selling artificial limbs, wig-makers, dental mechanics, loft manufacturers of perfume, pomades, novelties, essential oils. A point where dubious business enterprise touches Skid Row."
Sure, he's talking about scoring M, which he had a legendary dowser's sense for finding. These days, though, I go through the same process trying to discover great restaurants. I look in similar places for my kick of choice, and, like Bill, sometimes I get lucky and sometimes I don't. Edge neighborhoods - such as this triangular slice of Aurora, from Mexico to Parker, bounded by Havana and then over to the I-225 interchange -- breed little ethnic joints like a petri dish does bacteria. The rents are cheap, space is plentiful, and while there might not be many tooth mechanics or wig-makers, there are plenty of after-market car shops, comic-book stores and acupuncture clinics -- the modern equivalent.
Those six or seven square blocks hold probably fifty restaurants that run the gamut from Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese to Indian, Mexican, Irish and Eastern European. At Havana and Iliff is an American enclave, centered by Johnny's (and there's nothing quite so wholly and obsessively American as a late breakfast at Johnny's), with Dozens and Jus Cookin's visible from its parking lot. And that was another reason I'd come to Johnny's for breakfast: I wanted to start in the center before I went off looking for something a little to the left of it.
I ended up at Han Kang, which sits in a strip mall near the point of the triangle at the corner of Havana and Jewell, next to a piano lounge and attached to the flank of Sir Loin's Meat Shop. Han Kang is to Johnny's as the Cocteau Twins are to Lynyrd Skynyrd: polar opposites. The nearly two-year-old Korean family eatery was cool, quiet and, if not exactly dignified, then certainly muffled by comparison. The smiling servers were soft-footed, the giant TV kept to a murmur. The noisiest thing about the place was the food -- everything bubbling and sloshing -- and the splashy mural of an impressionistic Denver skyline that ran the length of one wall. The other three walls were papered with dozens of sheets of colored construction paper carefully filled with blocky Korean writing. Specials, I'm guessing, since there were prices on some of them, but I couldn't be sure. Hung everywhere -- on walls, in windows, from the service bar and soda machine -- they looked like poetry to me, written in an alien language I didn't understand.
Han Kang's menu was completely Korean, with all the native specialties. There was non-threatening bulgogi, soy-sweet and sugary beef piled on top of caramelized onions with a strong dose of sesame oil. Bi bim bop-- as much fun to eat as it is to say -- was like a tiny Korean buffet muddled up on one plate, with carrots and daikon, vinegar-brined greens, bean sprouts and shreds of marinated beef topped off with a fried egg and served with rice. The bi bim nengmyun-- vermicelli noodles with sliced rib-eye, slivered radish, green squash and half-moons of cucumber -- was similar to a Vietnamese noodle bowl, but leaning more to the sweet side.
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.
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 gaijin palate (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.
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It was some of the best crab I've ever tasted, which just goes to show what a little patience gets you. One bowl of soup, start to finish, took me about an hour and a half to finish, and it was worth every minute.
The meal ended with one more kitchen freebie, a little bowl of...something. I'll call it dessert because it was sweet, and I'll call it medicine because one sip of the stuff instantly settled a belly stuffed with spicy crab soup, six or eight sides, a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich and a cherry milkshake. But the truth is, I have no idea what it was, other than delicious. The liquid tasted like limes and rosewater over crushed ice, and I drank it all down before I finally, reluctantly, got up and went back out into a neighborhood of tooth mechanics and comic-book stores -- back into Burroughs's world of ambiguity and junk.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, the soap-opera girl ended up with the bad guy. But, hey, sometimes that's the way things go.