We headed back near Ujeongguk-ro (the “it’s all food” neighborhood) and entered the fray at a restaurant distinguished by what looked like elephant trunks dangling from the ceiling — adjustable-height ventilation pipes meant to suck the smoke from the hibachi-like grill built into each table.
We donned aprons provided to keep clients spatter-free and SaeEun let Gregory do the grilling for five minutes before she grabbed the tongs, moving the cooked pieces to the edge and adding new ones to the hot center.
“We choose this kind of place because it’s cheap and easy, and you can build your relationships,” SaeEun said, and around the restaurant, there was infectious laughing, ribbing, and drinking from tables of friends, people on dates, and co-workers.
At the end of the meal, we spritzed ourselves with a bottle of the Korean version of Feb-reze, kept by the door to help clients smell a little less like they’ve spent the night in a smoker with a pig, and headed into the night. We popped into a basement bar for beer and a plate of dubu kimchi (sautéed kimchi wreathed by tofu squares), then walked along the Cheonggyecheon stream, which, after the Korean War, had been covered by concrete under a rapidly-industrializing city, before being restored in 2005.
We ended up on red plastic chairs above the stream’s banks at a place that is half convenience store, half pop-up kitchen, eating whelks and fire-tinged spicy scallions, and drinking pints of Cass beer. We had gone from observing the city to merging into its flow.
A few days later, Elisabeth and I met MinGoo again for our last lunch in the city at the curiously-named Cafe Slobbie for home-style Korean.
“Everyone here wants good food, but people now live alone longer and they don’t know how to cook,” said MinGoo, explaining part of the restaurant’s popularity. We slurped cold buckwheat noodles, tempering their spicy sauce with nibbles of lotus root in a sweet syrup before tucking into dub-bob, which MinGoo described as “rice covered with something.” In this case, “something” was three kinds of earthy mushrooms, sesame, and bits of dried seaweed.
We talked about the quality of Korean restaurants (relatively high) and their evolution (slow and steady). I cautiously looped back to something that had been eating at me: why someone with MinGoo’s skill and experience is working at a mom-and-pop place that he calls “an ecological restaurant for everyone” instead of running his own spot or even returning to the States to cash in on the Korean food craze.
“I cooked at the Culinary Institute of America, NYC, Berkeley, San Francisco, Seattle, and Lummi Island. They were beautiful and excellent places, but they were not my place. In Korea, I found my dream place,” he said talking about both the country and his restaurant, “and we are building it together.”
Joe Ray can be reached at www.joe-ray.com.