Discovering A Restaurant in Busan—That Perhaps Wasn't a Restaurant After All

Bibimbap in Korea

Alita Ong

I found myself standing on a gray, disheveled street corner. I wasn’t lost, but at the same time, it didn’t feel as though I was in the right spot.

Several nights earlier, a colleague had recommended the place. It didn’t have a name, at least not that he knew. I barely knew my colleague’s name. He was furtive, quiet, a bit strange.

Maybe I shouldn’t have taken his advice. That’s what I thought, walking back and forth along a quiet charmless street. There were no cars, no bicycles, no pedestrians. The sidewalk was cracked, uneven, missing squares. There was a sinkhole in the road, discarded spears of rebar, loose gravel. The nearby lots were abandoned except for dead vines, windowless buildings, person-high weeds, rubble. Black burlap sacks covered garlic fields in the distance. The sky was growing black—it would rain any minute.

This was not a business district or residential. It wasn't exactly industrial, though there were a few warehouses. I was reasonably sure my coordinates could not be located in a guidebook. Maybe not even with GPS. Transformers, electrical towers, and power lines loomed overhead.

There were two buildings, identical blocks of concrete. One was secured with a padlock and chains crisscrossing the front door like bandoliers. The other had cheap black tinting on the windows, on top of which were two silver decals—silhouettes of nude women, like the ones you see on 18-wheeler mud-flaps. Strip club? Brothel? There was no sign. Not that it would've mattered. I'd been in Korea for two months but couldn't speak Korean or read a single Hangul character.

I lived in Songtan, teaching English Literature on U.S. military bases. For some reason, I'd been given an eight-hour Saturday class in Pusan, 200 miles away. To get there I had to take a 4:30 a.m. bus from Songtan to Seoul, then fly to Pusan. If everything went well, I'd have three minutes to spare.

When I'd arrived a few hours earlier, there were no students in the classroom. I waited 20 minutes. The base Educational Officer walked by and saw me. "Oh, yeah. When I e-mailed you last week? I gave you the wrong dates." The whole arrangement couldn't have been less efficient, less rational, more convoluted, and wasteful, but that's life in academia.

On the plus side, I had more time to track down the restaurant. I double-checked the nearly-illegible map that my colleague had scribbled on a bar napkin. Nude decals or not, I was in the right place—according to a peculiar, cartographically-challenged coworker. This had to be the place. But also, it just couldn't be the place.

I approached the building, breathed deeply, and opened the door.

Inside, a woman wearing an orange sweatsuit sat on a wooden stool. She was 80, maybe older. I bowed slightly. "Annyeong-haseyo." Hi. One of the four Korean phrases I knew. "Why are there naked pictures outside?" wasn't one of them.

"Anyeong." The woman laughed, stomping her foot on the floor. I had no idea what was so funny. She stood up, shuffled toward me in Mickey Mouse bedroom slippers, grabbed my arm, led me to a table. It looked a lot like the table in my apartment. In fact, the whole place looked remarkably like a private home.

Oh no. I was in someone's home. This was not a restaurant. I'd done a lot of stupid things in my life, but this was definitely in the top five—time to leave. I turned my body toward the door, but the woman gripped my shoulders and pushed me down into a chair. She had incredible strength, like a 70-year-old.

The woman shuffled into...the kitchen? Or was it her bedroom? Regardless, she came out wearing an apron. She stood in front of me, hands on her hips. It was time to order lunch, but there was no menu.

"Uh..."

She frowned, squinted, stared at me.

"I..."

She made a throaty nonverbal sound.

"Kimchi?" I said.

She looked at me as if I were feeble-minded. This was Korea. Everything came with kimchi.

"Bee-bim-bop?"

"Ne, ne." Yes, yes. The woman nodded, smiling because I had successfully named a food. The only food I could think of at the moment, perhaps because it sounded like a type of jazz.

Was that enough? Should I order more? "And...pork? Pork."

"Pork?" She was confused.

"Pok." I said.

"Ah, Pok. Ne, ne." She slapped me on the back and laughed again. Was she making fun of me?

Pok was how Koreans said pork. By mispronouncing the word, I was, apparently, saying it correctly.

As the woman tottered into a back room, a toddler wobbled in sucking her thumb. She walked right up to me and tugged on my sweater.

"Anyeong-haseyo," I said.

She started sucking the other thumb, eyeing me with apprehension.

A gruff middle-aged woman in jeans and a baggy sweater rushed over and set down a teapot and a tiny cup. I reached for the handle. Ah! A serious burn.

"Hot." She smiled now, taking the older woman's place on the wooden stool.
After a few minutes, I wrapped a napkin around the teapot handle and poured myself a steaming cup. Too hot to drink. The toddler kept staring.

There was a shout from the back. The middle-aged woman darted out and returned a few moments later with banchan—small appetizer plates. Pickled cabbage with hot pepper paste. Dongchimi, a white brine with vegetables. Stuffed cucumbers. Pickled seaweed. Some of the dishes were "kimchi," some weren't. Back then, I didn't know the difference. Boiled spinach with garlic and soy sauce. Sautéed mushrooms. Pajeon: delicious thin pancakes speckled with scallions. Gamjajeon, which is fried potato with carrot, onion, chili peppers, and a soy-vinegar dipping sauce. It is easily the best potato I've ever tasted.

I tried to keep myself from wolfing down the whole spread because there were still two courses to go, and Korean portions are generous. Generous plus. That much I knew. The problem was thirst, and boiling tea wasn't the answer. I wanted water but didn't know the word for it.

"Uh, excuse me." I punctuated this with my warmest, and possibly dumbest-looking, smile.

The middle-aged woman didn't return the warmth. "Ugh?"

"Could I have...maekju? Juseyo."

She nodded, yelling over her shoulder.

Beer? Please. The grammar was wrong, or nonexistent, but my lean vocabulary was sufficient. Barely.

A teenage girl emerged from what was maybe the kitchen—but still possibly the bedroom?—staring at her phone. Perhaps she was older, in her early-20's. She wore Uggs, a Donald Duck sweatshirt, and jean shorts.

The middle-aged woman seemed to be arguing with the teenager. Was it too early for a beer? 11:15 a.m. Maybe. Had I offended them?

The girl didn't look away from her phone but pointed the top of her head in my general direction.

"Maekju juseyo?" I asked again.

She bowed almost imperceptibly and walked out the door.

Five minutes later, she returned with a plastic bag and three 25-ounce bottles of OB, my favorite Korean lager. Simple, refreshing, clean. A typical, perfect Asian beer—nothing complicated or grapefruit-infused. I couldn't drink 75 ounces, though. I had a class to not teach. I'd need a nap, and there was nowhere to take one.

I opened the first beer while the toddler played with my shoelaces. She was cute, but her relentless gaze was unsettling. A few minutes later, the old woman and the girl brought my lunch.

"Kamsahamnida!" I thanked them. They responded with a Korean phrase I didn't know. It was either "You're welcome," or maybe "Hurry up and get out of our kitchen."

The pork was a breaded cutlet, sweet and dry, with a brown sauce. Nearly identical to Japanese tonkatsu. The bibimbap was a different matter. Delicious and singular, served in a wooden bowl the diameter of a hubcap.

A classic Korean dish, bibimbap is traditionally eaten the night before Lunar New Year, a time of renewal. The name literally means "rice and a whole lot of other stuff." The dish is prepared by taking all your leftovers, mixing them with rice and, voila, a hearty meal.

The bibimbap seemed to be staring at me—two sunny-side-up eggs were perched on top. There were many little meals inside this single bowl. A few elements, such as pickled seaweed, were clearly banchan that had been repurposed, which is classic bibimbap. There was also rice, finely chopped beef, bean sprouts, julienned carrots, soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, tofu, cabbage, gochujang (red pepper paste), shitake mushrooms, sesame seeds, brown sugar, and acres of fresh garlic. The rice sat at the bottom of the bowl. The beef, vegetables, and everything else was curled up in its own tidy corner. Before eating, you mix everything yourself—sort of a choose-your-own-adventure story.

While I spelunked through the spacious caverns of my bowl, the old woman dragged her stool across the room and sat behind me. I found this unnerving at first but, after a while, strangely reassuring and affectionate. With every inch of bibimbap I slogged through, each slug of beer, the woman smiled, laughed, and patted me on the back. Her great-granddaughter, if that's who she was, patted my knee and shrieked. I plowed through the meal as if I hadn't eaten for days, furiously working the chopsticks with as much skill as I could muster.

I didn't finish the meal but, at some point, merely stopped eating. The middle-aged woman returned, speaking sharply to the old woman. They pointed at me, muttered, made gestures I couldn't interpret. I bowed and kamsahamnida'd athletically, explaining, in English, how superb the food had been.

They didn't hand me a check, so I put 20,000 won—around $16—on the table. The old woman came over, took a few large bills and bowed. "Thank you. Very much."

Was this a restaurant? I'll never know. The woman didn't say "Come again," or hand me an after-dinner mint, so I'm guessing it wasn't. What I do know is that my own family was far away, and, for a short time, these women made me feel as if I were a part of theirs.

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