I grew up on Long Island, just on the fringe of New York City. As a child, I saw Manhattan as a place where I had to wear shoes and hold fast to my mother’s hand. As a teenager, it became a gritty playground in which I could indulge my rebellion. And when, in my mid-twenties, I finally claimed a New York City zip code, its mystery and charm steadily transformed into mere background noise, like static on a defunct TV channel.
In recent years, I’ve come see NYC as this massive, international buffet. In all of my globetrotting, never have I encountered a place that represents a global village as well. Always the dilemma: Do I head to Joe’s Shanghai for Xiaolongbao? Little Frankie’s for Spinach al Forno? Or do I take the 6 train downtown and hit Veselka, hunker down over a bowl of borscht and a plate of pierogies?
Today, I am meeting a friend midtown. I asked her to meet me in Koreatown.
What started out as a Korean bookstore and sprinkling of restaurants in the 1980s turned into a mini-district, dubbed Koreatown. Conveniently wedged between Penn Station and the Empire State Building, the 100+ small businesses that have sprung up on the stretch of 32nd street known as Korean Way have become as popular a pit stop for tourists as it has for the more than 200,000 Koreans that reside in the New York City metropolitan area.
This is not my first visit to Koreatown. Friends brought me here a few times in the months leading up to my move to Busan, to introduce me to the cuisine that would soon become my norm. I remember it being delicious and relatively cheap. I also remember how poorly my brief Korean Food 101 had prepared me for actual Korean food.
As I cross over Broadway, the storefronts undergo a sudden transformation. There is an instant familiarity here, and I quickly notice the noraebangs, the Face Shop, the fact that I’ve been reading the store names in Hangeul instead of English.
I order haemul pajeon at $7.95 and dwaenjang jjigae for $11.95, which is definitely more than this entire meal, with alcohol, would cost me back in Busan…Fortunately, catching up with an old friend overshadows my disappointment in the food, which winds up costing $40 after tax and tip.
I pop into several restaurants to try to decipher what’s what, to find something authentic. Again, my eyes shoot straight to the Korean letters, only double-checking the English when the dish name looks unfamiliar. An expectant restaurant hostess notices my finger scanning the Hangeul column and cocks her head at me. I ask her if she speaks Korean… in Korean. I get the reaction I always get when I speak Korean outside of Korea, a mixture of confusion and curiosity. I imagine a lot of foreigners who have lived in Korea get a similar satisfaction from interacting with Koreans outside of Korea; letting them know that I have a deep connection to and appreciation of their homeland instills this kind of instant bond.
After looking at about eight menus, trying not to seem like a jerk as I scoffed at the prices ($14.99 for ddeokbokki? $20.50 for bindaeddeok? $26.99 for samgyeopsal?) I settle on NY Komtangsoot Bulgalbi, a two-story establishment with a huge selection of standard Korean dishes at reasonable prices. By reasonable, I mean reasonable in comparison to the restaurants nearby, which is still pretty cringe-worthy compared to Korea.
My friend calls to let me know she will be late, and that I should order for her. She then rattles off a list of things she cannot eat, which includes all dairy, egg, gluten, meat and soy. Fortunately, the restaurant offers dolsot (stone pot) bibimbap, and the perfect English of my waiter helps me confirm the ingredients. This, I must admit, is refreshing. For myself, I order haemul pajeon (seafood green onion pancake) at $7.95 and dwaenjang jjigae (soybean-based stew) for $11.95, which is definitely more than this entire meal, with alcohol, would cost me back in Busan.
As I wait for my food and my friend, I am befriended by an ajeossi who appears to be the owner. Our conversation quickly turns to English when he discovers that my Korean is limited to food talk and a few simple sentences. All the same, he watches with delight as I masterfully pick up my chopsticks and sample all of the bancheon. The kimchi is exactly what I’m used to and the flavors of the other side dishes are spot-on, including the sesame-soy eggplant, seaweed salad and peppers in gochujang. I’m starting to suspect that I chose well.
When my food arrives, I immediately know that I’m not going to love the pajeon. It’s a puffy mass of fried flour with a few barely visible slivers of scallion and big round slices of imitation crab. The broth of the dwaenjang jjigae is dense and pungent, just the way I like it, but upon trolling through the soup with my spoon I discover chunks of pork as opposed to the clams or crab I normally find in the Busan version. It’s not bad, but it is different. My friend’s bibimbap is a pretty standard deal: rice, veggies and gochujang. Pretty hard to get it wrong.
Fortunately, catching up with an old friend overshadows my disappointment in the food, which winds up costing $40 after tax and tip. If I do head back to Koreatown, I’ll be sure to go with people who don’t have dietary restrictions, and do a little research beforehand (e.g. ask my New York-based Korean friends). In the meanwhile, I’ll stay focused on bagels and pizza and pastrami on rye.