Not a cold slap in the face per the old aftershave ads so much as a genial nudge toward a better outlook, followed by a feast of comforts.
La madre was visiting from Oklahoma, where Korean food is hard to come by, so we wanted to whisk her off to Aurora for a fix; I needed one, too, as life has been one rough stretch of pavement lately. But whisking became dragging as the traffic averaged 6 inches per hour; 40 min. went by before we were in the parking lot of our destination—which, as it turned out, was closed. We’d attempted to hit Beast + Bottle the night before only to find it darkened on a Monday, & wound up with a mad-disappointing alternative (more on that anon); with our bellies growling, our patience thinning, & our guards already up, we made a quickie call to try Seoul BBQ & Sushi—of which I’d long heard praise, but which had always seemed so dauntingly packed.
Sure enough, there was a 10-15 min. for a table—with grill or without, I was told. I put in my name & then realized I hadn’t specified which we preferred, so I returned to ask the hostess for a grilltop; somehow, in a minute flat, the wait had ballooned to 30-40 min. The Director had been looking forward to a meatfest, so I grumbled a bit before acquiesing to whatever came first. Not a moment later, however, she grabbed some menus & led us to a table—with a grill. (Her English was iffy & my Korean is nil, so I chalked it up to miscommunication.) Finally…
Well, almost. Upon noticing that the barbecue platters were for 2 or more people, I’d about had it. Moms doesn’t eat red meat, & I wasn’t in the mood for it, so I found myself growing totally petulant. But lo! The owner must have noticed my sourpuss, because suddenly he was at our side, crowing in wonderful broken English that theirs was the best barbecue in town, & since we were 1st timers, he’d tell the waitress to allow a single order. Relief, gratitude & sheepishness washed over me, followed by a quick buzz thanks to a hefty pour of wine, which I’d describe as “cheap, but in my tummy, where it belongs.” Thus the banquet ensued.
First, the pan chan (or banchan if you prefer): 14 dishes total, which is rather a lot in my experience. Many of them were ubiquitous, including kimchi of various sorts, sliced omelet, steamed broccoli in chili sauce, bean sprouts whole & in starch-jelly cubes, & macaroni salad (yes, that’s oddly typical, perhaps by way of Hawaii); others were less common, like cold marinated eggplant, tiny stir-fried dried shrimp & shredded octopus, disks of fried whitefish & zucchini. Nothing mind-blowing, just all so welcome. Like a basket of warm bread or a bowl of mixed nuts or even the stale cheese puffs they bring you with your aperitivo at any old streetside café in Italy, such freebies are always such a soul-soothing treat, a symbol of the idea that hospitality is more than a transaction, & you are more than a mouth connected to a wallet (or vice versa, for that matter).
As for that fought-for meat:
the Director stuck with the sweet-soy-marinated cow classics, namely thin-sliced bulgogi & galbi, or short ribs. Admittedly, the thing about DIY prep is that you’re not necessarily sure whether any problems stem from the quality of the raw material, the way it was cut, or the way you cooked it. In this case, the bulgogi was mouthwatering, but the ribs were a bit tough.
And let’s say that my naeng myun with chopped raw fish was, oh, homestyle. I’ve had many spare, elegant versions of this ultra-vinegary, beef-broth-based, chilled noodle (usually buckwheat or sweet potato) soup—containing, for instance, sliced Asian pear, dollops of roe, julienned raw veggies, fresh herbs & so on (as well as, often, paper-thin slices of beef). This ginormous bowl was just a hornet’s nest of threads, tons of sweet (& I mean sweet) chili sauce, chunks of ice, fishbones, & I don’t know what all. Carefully done it was not; so far, I thought, Silla was winning 2-0 as far as precision goes. Still, the noodles were, shockingly, the right texture, & the flavors were charmingly neon; I slurped plenty.
Besides, mom’s huge, salted & broiled mackerel filet was simple, flaky, golden, & fine,
& really, everything was simple & fine. Our K-pop-pretty server was cheerfully there when we needed her, & brought cups of sikhye with the bill. Our hunger & crankiness was long gone. The sounds of other satisfied guests swirled around us in the bright-lit dining room. And the ride home would be a calm breeze. Some days you can’t ask for more.