For years, I had contemplated what my first dinner in Seoul might be like, whether I’d splash out on a meal of barbecue or find the bindaeduk that would put all other mung-bean pancakes to shame, discover a radically new radish kimchi or steel myself to try bosintang, the famous dog-meat soup whose heating qualities are oddly prescribed for the hottest day of summer. On the drive into the city from Incheon airport, after marveling at the endless sea of high-rises pressing in on either side of the Han River, I try to process the seemingly infinite succession of places to eat, including Starbucks and KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts and Red Mango.
I trip out of the hotel room a little after midnight, woozy with sleeplessness and queasy in the way that too much airline Scotch can make you feel. I had the name of a restaurant near Gangnam Station that specializes in sullongtang, a nourishing, milky-white soup made out of long-boiled beef bones. It didn’t look too far on the map, but I got lost almost immediately, and found myself on a long, narrow food alley leading in more or less the right direction. Food alleys, lit Vegas-bright with the signs of a hundred tiny restaurants, tend to be pretty distracting, at least if you’re easily diverted by roiling eel tanks or wisps of blue smoke rising from chunks of grilling meat. I was drawn to the busiest restaurant, identified only by the red-neon bowl in the window, and almost as soon as I sat down, a man slapped a dish of rough-hewn kimchi, rice and a plastic bottle of water onto the table, followed closely by a heated iron bowl filled with what seemed to be the only dish the restaurant served. I ordered a bottle of soju, and the waiter smiled. Soju, a kind of half-proof Korean vodka, is always appropriate.
There was cabbage in the soup, bits of liver and kidney, and fatty half-moon curls of sliced intestine. The soup smelled and tasted like an animal’s insides, although in a pleasant way once you added the requisite dose of chile paste. Oddest of all was a pale kind of sausage that I originally thought was small intestine but later came to realize was probably a local specialty of poached squid stuffed with gooey clotted blood, which was kind of an elegant take on the Korean blood sausage sundae. So basically, I’d stumbled into every tourist’s nightmare: You go out for some noodles, and you end up with the back end of an abattoir. I finished every drop.
A Hotteok Time
In many countries, street stalls are at the heart of the cuisine, sometimes offering traditional dishes lovingly preserved by cooks whose families have been preparing them for generations. At first look, at least judging by the stalls in Seoul’s Insadong neighborhood, Korea may not be one of those places — the street stalls more often than not feature gummy rice noodles seething in sweet chile sauce, dead-cold Korean tempura (twigim) weeping oil, bland rice cakes, or oversalted fish balls on a stick. The fried pancakes called hotteok, though, served blistering hot and stuffed with currants, cinnamon and molten brown sugar, are extremely compelling — especially when you get to watch the mimes hired to promote Korean apples fight for space with the superhero hired to ride around on a Segway tricked out to resemble a giant toothbrush. You can always try the Christian revival tent, in which you can get a small glass of orange drink in return for your immortal soul.
“The first thing you have to do,” a friend told me, “is find out if there is a Losangelestown in Korea.” There’s not, although many of the people you meet will have spent some time in Los Angeles. There is, however, a genuine Americatown, a stretch of cover-band bars and burger joints and franchised American fast food in the Itaewon area near the U.S. Army Base, a neighborhood that feels very much like a scrap of the South Bay transplanted to Seoul. I wander into a three-story hockey-themed bar, where on the top floor a band of English teachers is ripping into a Pretenders song. The only non-Americans in the room are working behind the bar. I start to wonder whether I have a South Korean counterpart who even now is worrying about the authenticity of the Bloomin’ Onion at the Itaewon Outback Steakhouse. Half of the party I am traveling with, a group that includes a deputy LAPD chief, a Garden Grove city planner, some senior detectives and officials from the mayor’s office, are so happy to discover an Outback in this kimchi-soaked country that they practically weep fat tears of joy.
Ulsan, way at the south of the country, is a newly enormous town at the center of Korea’s manufacturing boom, home to Hyundai Motors, the beyond-enormous Hyundai shipyard and most of the country’s chemical plants. Hyundai owns a Manhattan’s worth of apartment buildings, the largest local department store, hotels, scores of restaurants and practically all the skyline. Before Hyundai, Ulsan was perhaps best known as a whaling port, and there is a small, charming whale museum on the waterfront with replicas of whaling vessels, displays of harpoons, hanging whale specimens and holographs of cute cartoon whales who explain the sea to you in Korean. Across the street is a row of whale-meat restaurants, identified by cartoon signs picturing the creature, and a friend figures that if we lose the group, we have just enough time to nip into one of them before the bus leaves without us. We are seated on the floor, in a private screened room, at one of the low, chairless tables that seem to feature in every Korean restaurant grander than a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. (There are a lot of Coffee Bean & Tea Leafs in Korea.) A couple of minutes later, a waitress returns with a platter of whale yuk hwe — the vividly red meat has been cut into thin strips and tossed with sesame oil and slivered Korean pear, and I am surprised to discover that the whale is delicious, leaner than beef, with a rich, mineral taste and a haunting, almost waxy aftertaste that I can’t quite place. I am already anticipating the nasty glare I will inevitably get from my marine-scientist brother, Mark, who as the leader of Heal the Bay has dedicated his life to pretty much the opposite of this. I swear: I’ll never eat whale again.