Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Koreatown, Manhattan

My last duty station with the Army was Camp Garryowen in the Republic of Korea.  I didn't love my time there, but there were certainly good things about it, and over the years, I've come to think of that time as a blessing.  Compared to some other possibilities, Korea offered an interesting culture in a fairly safe operating environment alongside an ostensibly important real-world mission.  Still, my favorite times had nothing to do with my service in the United States Cavalry.  What I remember most is heading to the local town of Munson with the squadron's other staff captains, looking for trouble--or at least a decent place to get Korean barbecue.  These were, by far, my favorite moments overseas.

One of these sits in my library.
If you've been for actual Korean barbecue--by which I mean indoor family-style barbecue served in Korea--you probably remember sitting on the floor around a small, communal Sterno-like stove, simmering meat over a little metal plate while you slowly dull your senses with Hite beer or OB Lager.  The place we used to go in Munson had a large floor-mounted refrigerator filled with sliced raw meat, and my memory suggests that we used to throw down something like $20 apiece in exchange for all we could eat and drink.  Being up by the DMZ, we would occasionally see ROK soldiers out with their families after boot camp, and we'd drink to celebrate their initiation into service.  These were our brothers in arms, though we communicated exclusively via drunken gestures of friendliness.

It was a good time.

Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Suffice it to say that going for Korean barbecue in Midtown Manhattan is a very different experience.  Koreatown is located on 32nd Street between 5th Ave and Broadway, right in the heart of one of the busiest neighborhoods in the busiest place on Earth.  Sally, the girls, and I went there on Friday last week after touring the Museum of the City of New York and the Guggenheim, and while we all thought it was one of the day's highlights, it was nevertheless not at all what my memories told me to expect.

We got into K-Town about 2:30 and spent all of five minutes looking at the different restaurant choices.  In retrospect, I probably should have done a little more research before we got there because I have this feeling that the lower-priced places probably have more authentic food, and it wasn't immediately obvious which places were catering to which kinds of clientele.  That said, "low price" is very much a relative concept in K-Town.  Most of the places have a $$ rating on Yelp, meaning they aren't cheap at all.  Indeed, we wound up spending just over $100 on lunch for four, which was quite a bit more than I'd expected.  Complicating these concerns is the reality that Korean food involves a lot more than just Korean barbecue.  However, I wanted the real cook-it-in-front-of-us experience, so we wound up at a much more upscale place than I'd have preferred in terms of both price and atmosphere.  Still, we had what I recognized as legitimate Korean barbecue, and that was the point.

Hannah and I took a selfie with our stove.
Most of K-Town offers Korean BBQ as a sit-down meal.
It was a deeply weird experience to sit at a table with chairs for Korean barbecue.  We wound up ordering some beef and chicken dishes that I remembered as staples from my time overseas, alongside an order of bimbimbap.  The waitress brought it out along with the full array of kimchi and pickled God-knows-what.  She also stood over us and basically cooked the meat for us.  That annoyed me to no end.  Luckily, the food was terrific.  Sally and I both washed it down with some Hite beer, and all things considered, the entire experience left me feeling full and happy.

Truly, I've no complaints save that I've heard there are better, more authentic Korean places out in Jersey and/or the outer buroughs, though you have to get there to enjoy them.  Regardless of its history, K-Town in Manhattan has become as upscale as any other part of the Midtown business district.  That's fine, of course, but it sure isn't cheap, and the folks that go there aren't looking to sit on the floor and grab their meat out of an old refrigerator case.  Alas, that is what I wanted, but I suppose this was close enough for a first pass.

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