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Ralph Gardner Jr: Koreatown On My Mind

Korean dishes on display in Koreatown of Manhattan, New York City
Wikimedia Commons
Korean dishes on display in Koreatown of Manhattan, New York City

It took me a full month upstate before I started to feel homesick for New York City. It happened when I searched the Internet for a recipe for tofu dressing. Don’t get me wrong. Given the choice between a strip steak and a hunk of tofu, no matter how artfully garnished, I’ll take the steak every time.

But tofu was one of the things – I’m not sure I’d describe it as a staple but it does have a reasonably long shelf life when refrigerated – that I bought to tide us over during a pandemic. I remembered how delightful it could taste swimming in a light scallion sesame sauce at one of my favorite Korean restaurants on 32nd Street just west of Fifth Avenue. Thinking of that place and its former happy lunchtime tumult made me sad.

If you’re unfamiliar with Korean cuisine I encourage you to try it once this crisis has abated. The Koreans do amazing things with marinated meat. But perhaps my favorite part of the meal comes when you sit down and your waiter places before you as many as six side dishes.

Things like kimchi: super spicy fermented Napa cabbage. There’s also seasoned bean sprouts. Seasoned spinach. Spicy cucumber salad. Delicate Korean potato salad; it helps soothe the palate after a hit of kimchi.

What’s remarkable about the dishes, collectively known as banchan – I didn’t know that until I looked it up – is both the subtle flavors Korean cuisine manages to infuse in the most simple of vegetables and also that it doesn’t cost extra. They come with every Korean meal. If you’re hungry you know you won’t have to wait more than a minute or two to eat. The dishes arrive automatically.

As I searched the Internet for a tofu recipe that approximated the one at that restaurant, I thought about the last time I ate there. It was probably in January or February but it felt a lifetime ago. I thought of the staff – all young, all cheerful. At intervals they’d let out a shout or a cheer. I have no idea what they were cheering about or what triggered the outburst because it happened in Korean. But it contributed to the general gaiety of the place.

I wonder what’s become of them? I assume they’re sheltering in place like everybody else. Unfortunately, probably out of a job for the moment.

It’s strange the things you miss about a place. If I’d had to predict what I miss about New York City I’d have probably have said something like the people watching. Also Central Park in spring when its legions of ornamental trees and early flowers blossom in pink, white and yellow profusion.

The city’s restaurants wouldn’t have been the first thing that came to mind to make me homesick. But it’s one of the things that distinguishes New York from most other places. Obviously, you can get a variety of foods in other cities. But when I think of France or Italy, for example, I think of French or Italian food.

When I think of New York I don’t think of American food, with the exception of something like readily available cheeseburgers. If there is such a thing as New York cuisine it’s actually the critical mass of all those separate cultures and cuisines – Italian, French,  Chinese, Latin, Indian, Korean, Greek, Japanese; pizza, tacos, sushi, burgers, shish kabob, tandoori chicken – often within a block or two of each other. Often on the same block. In your own neighborhood.

The ambitious can travel to ethnic neighborhoods in other parts of the city for particular foods. But it’s unnecessary. You’re almost doing it as much for the adventure, the outing, as you are because any one restaurant has a monopoly on a national cuisine.

It’s also one of those things you take for granted until it’s gone. The other thing you take for granted is how available such experiences are in a great melting pot city. We’re doing pretty well cooking at home. But it comes without the surprises of a new restaurant or the convenience and reassurance of returning to a tried and true one. 

On a typical evening I’d meet my friend Aris at the Dublin House, an Irish bar on the Upper West Side with its iconic neon harp sign out front, have a drink or two and then head to Raku, a Japanese restaurant a five minute walk away where we both mostly order the same thing: Aris the sushi deluxe, me a bento box. Mine includes spicy tuna roll (I tend to be pretty conservative when it comes to sushi) fried pork dumplings and shrimp tempura. At around twenty bucks and including soup and dessert it’s a pretty good deal.

By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever known Aris, who I’ve been friends with since 7th grade, to make a mistake when ordering. I’ve never known anyone, no matter the cuisine, better able to size up a restaurant and its menu.

On occasion, I’ve asked him to explain that talent and where it comes from. He credits it to a combination of some fundamental logic his father taught him about things like sauces and whether you should roll the dice, and common sense.

I believe Aris is being too modest. His astronomical batting average is a mixture of intuition, unsentimental intelligence and perhaps hailing from a proud ethnic background himself, with its own customs and characteristics.

In any case, such skills are essential when navigating New York’s food world. I hope to avail myself of them again, in restaurants that will reopen, boisterous and healthy, in the not too distant future.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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