Koreatown in Manhattan occupies roughly the territory between 31st and 36th streets and Fifth and Sixth avenues, but the densest concentration of shops and restaurants is on 32nd Street, west of Fifth--at least 20 eateries, many of them table-top barbecue joints, beauty shops advertising eyelash extensions (apparently a Korean specialty), a large bookstore, and a small supermarket, packed at rush hour. As has been abundantly established, I can never resist an exotic grocery store, and that’s where we head first. This one, HanAhReum, has nowhere near the selection or space of the Hong Kong market chains in Flushing and Brooklyn, but there’s a beckoning assortment of things like dumplings, kimchee (spicy pickled cabbage), and Asian noodles. No eels or froggies here, but I do find a package of something called lobster balls in the frozen food section.
“Hey, Dave,” I say, “did you know lobsters have balls?”
“No,” he answers, “but I’m reasonably sure moths do.”
Nothing really grabs my interest the way the thrillingly unfamiliar goods in Russian and other Asian markets did, but I buy the lobster balls, a bag of shrimp crisps, and some unidentified dumplings about the size of half-dollars. We check out the street-level action before deciding on a restaurant, noting an upscale wine bar, several hair-styling parlors, a place for waxes of an unidentified nature with a cross burning brightly above it (the Temple of the Holy Bikini Wax?), fast-food joints, and a sleek-looking patisserie/coffeehouse that we vow to visit after dinner.
We cruise swiftly through one of the fast-food places, where you can buy incredibly healthy-looking fare for about the price of a Big Mac and fries. One of the smiling ladies behind the counter allows us to sample tasty teryaki beef morsels and at the front of the brightly lit spacious restaurant a gangly kid dispenses ribbons of pale p ink and green ice cream into big vats. After passing a studio where Dave swears he once witnessed a pole-dancing class, it’s time for some serious grub and we pick out Gahm Mi Oak at 43 West 42nd Street, a 24/7 restaurant renowned for its sul long tang (touted as a hangover cure), a broth of ox bones boiled for 12 hours and topped with ribbons of brisket, rice, and rice noodles.
But our appetites lead us to soo yuk, a platter of thinly sliced tongue , brisket, and tripe surrounding a mound of seaweed salad and some dense crispy pancakes of mung beans, scallions, ground pork and kimchee. Also on the menu are Korean-style kielbasa and jambalaya (modum soon dae and bibim bap) , boiled squid with hot sauce, and a gelatin of cow knee—and if tha sounds obnoxious, consider that the place fills up rapidly and we waddle out feeling well sated but still ready for dessert.
At Kyorodang, a few doors down, we discover the anti-Starbucks: a long and elegant room with armchairs, brick walls, and real trees lining the middle. The clientele are a mixture of chic business types and kids studying to knock your offspring from the rosters of the Ivy League.
Our table features a small display of pristine white stones below the surface with a label sternly admonishing “Please do NOT lift the glass and do NOT write on the rocks”—a very weird no-no considering that lifting the glass would require two people to move a table-sized slab. I order a double espresso (a mistake) and Dave a regular coffee (ditto), when we really should be asking for tea in a Korean place. The coffee is far too weak. Then I head to the front to pick out a seductive wedge that looks like a dark chocolate gâteau. But it’s not. It seems made from the same sticky spongy stuff that goes into other Asian pastries, and it comes with a small bewildering tag that reads: “PATISSERIE: Please understand how I feel with my heartly present.” I think I do, but if I visit this place again I will go for something less exotic, like “Hot Dog Ketchup” or “Hot Dog Bacon,” which are franks stuffed in what looks like a croissant crust. Let’s face it, some foods are simply best left to their cultures of origin.