There once was a time in Korea when I was pretty scared to just jump into a new, small restaurant and order something. Sometimes, I still am. But, I’ve gotten better.
Korea likes its chains. Whether it’s coffee or food or clothing or something else, chances are if you see a place, it’s not the only place of that place in this place. You follow?
And those can be pretty great, too, as well as a unique flavor, whether of your neighborhood or just Korea in general. While there’s a Paris Baguette in Edison, NJ, I am pretty sure the Woncho in Jangnim, Busan, isn’t making the trip over to the U.S. any time soon.
The best way to get a taste of this place, a connection stronger than just being there, is eating there. And, that connection gets especially strong when it’s a one-of-a-kind establishment, the type the locals frequent. The type where, yes, occasionally the waygookin might get a couple of looks when he walks in.
That did not happen tonight as I opted to order Kimchi Jigae (kimchi stew) at a place other than my local kimbap shop (Woncho, or “Original,” which is a chain, though not nearly as ubiquitous as others) for a change.
I had seen the place in passing as I came and went from Home plus, but had not ventured inside. I almost didn’t tonight. Looking in the squalid interior through a sheer door hanging, I could see several tables with older gentleman, sipping their soju and munching on their BBQ. While I am bolder than I used to be, I still occasionally pause.
But, I did not. Instead, I walked in, knowing I wanted Kimchi Jigae and ordering it as soon as the middle-aged woman, the only employee in the place, walked to greet me.
I also wanted a bathroom. “Hwa-jang-shil oedi-issoyo?” She walked me outside, around the corner and pointed to a space near a garage where I found a small room with a squatter toilet, ready to accept my belongings.
I went back inside and she handed me a wet rag and cup of water between tending to the other tables, which continued happily eating, drinking and talking in their Busan dialects. Clearing throats. Laughing. Thankfully, no spitting.
Soon, a tray with my stew and a generous selection of banchan (side dishes) was placed before me. There were the usuals, including kimchi (even with a kimchi-based meal, you have to get kimchi. I am thankful), bean sprouts and a leafy green, I think some form of spinach. There also was a sticky, slightly sweet squid banchan, which I enjoyed greatly but did not need seconds, unlike a fantastic and unexpected side dish of onions and slightly sour seaweed that positively reeked (in a great way) of the ocean.
And, of course, the main. Unlike Woncho, which sometimes feels a little skimpy on flavor (it is pretty damn cheap so I don’t complain), this kimchi jjigae was rich with spice, umami and all that is expected of this kind of stew. There were several tender chunks of meat within, and the whole thing cost 5,000 won, only 1,500 more than what I pay for what I consider lesser quality food at Woncho.
For anyone not sure about my praise, whether from ignorance or your own experience eating Korean cuisine, it’s the subtle differences that really make for me the experience. While I thought tonight’s kimchi jjigae was superior, it was still kimchi jjigae. The next time I try a new place and order kimchi jjigae, it’s going to taste like kimchi jjigae. But, maybe it won’t have the same level of richness. Maybe the kimchi on the side won’t taste quite the same. Maybe the humble, nice middle-aged woman running the joint will throw a pleasant, unexpected curve ball in the form of an awesome seaweed side that will make you love Korean cooking more than before.
These are the experiences one gains from trying new places, trying places that may scare at first because everything is in Korean, or because you’re afraid everyone’s going to look at you. They probably are … for, like, four seconds. But, they know the food is what’s most important. Now that you know that, it’s time to go inside and eat.