Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fort Lee, New Jersey, or, How To Find Korean Food Anywhere

Usually when I think about New Jersey, I think about Bruce Springsteen and small sized industrial towns where the factories are closing down, leaving big manly men out of work and other big manly men feeling despair in the bottom of their glass of whiskey, imploring their girlfriends with American names like Wendy or Kate to get in their fast cars and get the hell out of this small town. For my dad though, and countless other Koreans, New Jersey is Fort Lee, and Fort Lee is Korean food.

"Really?" I said. "Wouldn't you rather go to Korea Town in Manhattan?"

"Nah, let's go to Fort Lee," he said.

I was skeptical, but curious. My favourite Korean joint in Manhattan, Buk Chang Dong, had been closed down and I was devastated. I asked Twitter: "My dad thinks that there will be better Korean food in Fort Lee than Manhattan. Is this true?"

"YES," replied Twitter with much certainty.

So we went to Fort Lee for Korean food.

This blog should be renamed "How To Find Korean Food Anywhere."

If you want to know what downtown Fort Lee looks like, picture a cute quaint small American town, narrow streets and friendly storefronts, the kind that Bruce Springsteen would write about...but full of Koreans. And Korean banks. And Korean salons. And restaurants. And the highest per capita Korean American county population in the United States. And the second largest population of ethnic Koreans outside of Korea. I was home.

downtown Fort Lee

We pulled into Fort Lee just as the sun went down. We headed over to So Kong Dong, a soondubu restaurant that had been given a lot of great reviews on the Interweb. The restaurant's parking lot was full of Audis, BMW and Mercedes Benz. We parked our shameful Hyundai SUV in the public parking lot across the street.

I was starving. After eating at McDonald's twice in one day, I wanted to eat something so Korean that I was going ooze Korean stereotypes. I wanted to burn my tongue with red chili so bad that I would exhale spice for a week, like a hot spicy prayer to the kochujang gods. I wanted a place that would serve at least three different types of kimchi as banchan, and weird plants that would freak out North Americans with feeble appetites. In Fort Lee, it could not have been too much to ask for. I was also dying for a beer.

Luckily, So Kong Dong hit the spot. It was every bit as Korean as I was hungering for. There were all sorts of kimchi. There was all sorts of banchan. The sizzling kalbi was served with scissors on the side, because that`s how Koreans cut our meat, if not with our teeth, BECAUSE STEAK KNIVES ARE FOR WIMPS. We got our egg to drop into our stew. We got our bizarre noorongjee made from pouring bouricha water into a bowl with leftover rice. Bam.

All sorts of banchan.


But there was no beer. So on our way home, Dad and I stopped by a liquor store. In Fort Lee, the liquor stores sell Koerna booze liek soju and makoli. We bought a six pack of OB, which incidentally is also the brand name for North American tampons.

There's something wonderful about going to cities like this and eating Korean food. People find it difficult to understand, but no matter how big a city might be, the quality of its Korean cuisine scene is dictated by the size of its Korean population. If Korean restaurants are forced to cater to non-Korean tastes to make money, like the way Ottawa does, then their menus tend to be limited and simplified, sticking to the safe, non-scary popular dishes that North American people will order, like bimbimbap, sushi, or all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ like galbi or bulgogi. If, on the other hand, Korean restaurants don't have to give a damn about explaining what kimchi is to non-Koreans because most of their clientele are Koreans, then they can expand their menu to all sorts of things like soft tofu squeezed out of a tube and poured into a stew that you drop an egg into. or boshintang, or bundagee, things that would make the average North American run away screaming.

On our last night in Fort Lee, New Jersey, we tried out Gam Mi Ok, a place that my friend Jack had assured me had the best kimchi I`d ever tasted. It was only a few streets away from So Kong Dong, and was a very unique Korean restaurant, the kind of thing you`d only see in a city with a large Korean population. As my dad commented, it was like a Korean restuarant trying to go for a modern upscale feel, but still serving traditional un-upscale Korean food....because let`s face it, authentic Korean food just isn`t upscale. It`s home cooking, soul food.

But this restaurant sure was going for upscale. There was valet parking, a live jazz band (have you ever seen a jazz band in a Korean restaurant?), and modern interior decor, including the one long table in the middle of the room. Lettuce and kochujang sauce were brought out as "starters". But despite these Western touches, the restaurant still remained Korean at heart. There was still the option to eat ondol bang style, on the floor off a low table. The menu weas hardcore Korean, not the kind of stuff you'd give to North Americans trying Korean food for the first time, but the dishes that real Koreans love to eat, like beef tongue soup, oxtail stew, tripe, and whatever other vegetarian's nightmare concoctions we Koreans like to come up with. Sadly, they only brought out one banchan (side dish), kimchi...but it was, as promised, really good kimchi. Cut with scissors. Because, as I mentioned, only wimps use knives.

low tables are hardcore

Dad and my sister ordered yoo-ke-jang, a shredded beef stew that was delicious but ferociously devilishly spicey that my sister compared them to suicide wings. This dish should be called suicide yookejang, my sister said. I was intrigued, but feeling less experimental, so I ordered bibimbap, the epitome of Korean cliches. Mom had the seul leung tang, ox tail soup.

After a filling meal and an unexpected night of jazz music, we headed back to our hotel, which was an adventure in itself. We stayed at a peculiarly located Hampton Inn that was basically situated on the side of an on-ramp of a highway, so that the only way to get to the hotel was if you were coming from one direction and on that on ramp specifically. Otherwise, you had to pull over the shoulder on the side of the highway, wait till there was a break in the highway traffic of oncoming cars, and then dart across several lanes of traffic. It's like a video game, only involving death. I didn't quite understand why anyone would ever build a hotel there. Hotel guests generally don't want to risk death in a horrible car accident every time they drive back to their hotel. But whatever. There's something about the whole thing that sounds like a Bruce Springsteen song. Baby, we almost died / on the New Jersey turnpike / toniiiiiight. Pretty much anything you do in New Jersey could sound like a Springsteen song. Even eating Korean food.

oh baby, the smell of yoo-ke-jang on your breath tonight
could slay a hundred sad crack addicts waiting by the Turnpike
and i could kiss those kimchi stained lips of yours
because the factory's finally closed its doors
so lets get in your car and ride...