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an experience that defines the word "chowhound"

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an experience that defines the word "chowhound"

Stan | Aug 7, 2004 11:10 AM

I had an experience that defines the word "chowhound". I mentioned that on an earlier chow walk I had come across some interesting Korean restaurants on Pico. I had been surprised, since I didn't realize that Koreatown extended that far south. Two of the restaurants are in the same mini-mall at 4100 W Pico (near Crenshaw). Neither of them lists its name anywhere in Latin characters. For lunch I went to the one that's on the west side of the mall, the one with the fish logo. Or at least I tried to. The owner flat-out refused to serve me. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but he just couldn't conceive that a farang would want to eat his food. He kept saying "you no eat, you no like, is Korean food", etc, shaking his head in wonderment at the idea that I was even there at all. Then he started saying that his restaurant only served raw fish, and he made faces to indicate the disgust that he supposed raw fish would cause in me. I told him that I ate in Korean restaurants all the time, and that I eat raw fish with no problem. Like sushi, I said. Big mistake, as he stoutly denied that his raw fish had anything to do with sushi. This went on for a while. Then he claimed that his cook wasn't there, and that he had no way to serve me any food. But what about the people who were eating at the table in the window? Those people were just eating kim chee and rice, he said, and then he made more faces to explain how bad kim chee was going to smell to me. I asked when the cook was going to show up, and he was vague about that. Finally I said I would come back another time. He wasn't very encouraging about that.

Okay, so I wandered to the Korean place at the east end of the mini-mall. It has absurdly high ceilings and a big fan aimed at each of the tables where people were eating. I walked in, stuck up one finger, and said I'm one person for lunch. The ladies who ran the place had no idea what I was talking about, and only after a while did it dawn on them that I was trying to eat at their restaurant. Whereupon they too went into "you no eat, you no like, is Korean food". I asked if they had a menu, and the lady who I took to be the owner handed me the menu with an incredulous laugh, as if she was certain that I was about to recoil in horror at the weird menu items and walk out in search of hamburgers and french fries. I pointed at the menu and said, "I want this, pork and kim chee". She could hardly believe this, did another couple rounds of "you no eat, you no like", but finally pointed me at a table. Victory. I sat down and before I could get settled I noticed that the Health Department had given the place a "C". Oh man. But I was stuck, as pride wouldn't let me back out now. So I hung out. Eventually the food arrived -- eight panchan, a big plate of pork (maybe boiled) sitting on lettuce leaves, a big plate of kim chee, some bean sprout soup, seasoned rice, and a couple of condiments, one liquid and the other a paste. The owner then made sure that I understood that to eat the food I was supposed to combine some pork with some kim chee and the condiments. (There was also some raw garlic and green chili slices, but I mostly ignored those.) Imagine my relief when I determined that the food was quite good. The pork was pleasantly porky and the kim chee was standard issue, but when combined with the liquid condiment they went really well. Some of the panchan were unfamiliar to me, and I really liked the one that seemed like caramelized potatoes.

When I was nearly done eating, a young man came by who I took to be the owner's son. He spoke good English and soon started asking me questions, like where I was from and how I knew about the restaurant. Although Americanized and basically cool, he too was surprised that I was there. I explained that I had come across their restaurant by walking all over Koreatown and eating at many different places. But that didn't explain why I was eating Korean food at all, so I explained that I walk all over Los Angeles and eat everything. Now finally we were connecting, and he explained that his favorite food was Thai. So I asked him if he knew about Renu Nakorn. He didn't, so I wrote "Renu Nakorn" and "Norwalk" on my chopstick wrapper and he seemed most enthused.

Then I told the guy about the restauranteur next door who had refused to serve me. He wasn't sure at first who I meant, but I showed him the guy's business card. "Oh yes, I know that guy." He explained, perhaps just politely making up an excuse for him, that the guy was self-conscious about speaking English. I shared my theory that they probably didn't get many outsiders eating at their restaurants because Pico was so far away from the Koreatown business and party district on Wilshire. He agreed with me, but then he surprised me by saying that they got Latino and black customers all the time. So it wasn't just that I was a farang -- it was that I was white. I thought it better not go to into this more deeply. In any event he said he would speak with the neighbor who had refused to serve me. "I'll tell him you were angry!", he said jokingly, and I jokingly implored him not to do that, since after all I still wanted to eat at the restaurant, and furthermore I planned to send all of my friends to eat there too, just for good measure. Anyway, so he explained all of this in Korean to his mom, and we were all friends by the time I left.

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