February 28, 2013

Eating My Favorite Dish on My Birthday at a Former Mexican Restaurant in Koreatown

I forget how cold L.A. can get after a long, indian summer that lasted until late October. When my birthday rolls around every December, I get to bust out my favorite jackets (I don't really own sweaters) and bundle up in the evenings with extra blankets. It's also when I get the irresistible urge to eat more Korean food than ever. Korea is a cold ass country. Ask my friend Erik who lived there for a few years and decided to move back to L.A. because it was just too cold (he's now back in Korea). The Korean people have been weathered and blistered in the darkest, longest of winters. It's in my DNA to want warm, comforting food. My ancestors, who once wandered the low mountains of Northern Korea, probably huddled around fires in straw huts cooking up the delicious delights I now enjoy in places like Surawon.

Surawon is pretty unremarkable for a Korean restaurant in L.A. It's housed in a former Mexican restaurant, uses some of the weirdest lighting arrangements ever, and smells a bit like a dive bar. Upon walking in, one will notice that many tables hold large, disk-shaped cauldrons of bubbling soup, or jungols in Korean. These are the primordial soups of Korean cuisine, where various seafoods and meats and veggies are piled into a broth, laden with spice and sit with a low simmer, a bit like a Chinese hotpot, but with no dipping involved. They're big enough for a standard-issue nuclear family.

I was here on my birthday, which felt like a late autumn day instead of an early winter one, with a steady breeze and trees flaking off turned leaves in preparation for the cold months. I'd come off of a rather difficult afternoon, a long conversation with my mother after we had lunch at a sushi joint. I won't get into the details of the talk, except that since then I've been grappling a bit with acceptance. What it means to be accepted for who one is, or chooses to be, or chooses to live. It's a hard thing for someone who has so many expectations. I try not to over-aggrandize the situation I'm in except that there's a point in one's life when you decide to become your own person, or become the subject of something else. And even becoming your own person is a type of submission; it's a submission of your own will for what you value the most. And that thing depends on who you are, but for me, it was, and is, something I believe in.

I don't always eat my favorite dish, mostly because I haven't found the version I like most. I mean, of course I enjoy my mother's version. I like my dad's version. But I'm looking for my favorite version of yookhwejang, a sort of over-looked dish in the canon of Korean cuisine. It's not particularly interesting in the purview of other great dishes. Deng jang chijae is a quick one people pick, or bulgogi, or bossam, or neng myun. My favorite is this spiceful dish, tinted an intense red, whose piquancy varies upon the addition of jalapeno (an American variant that you won't find in Korea). The balance is found between the strings of brisket, strands of potato vermicelli that lurk beneath the surface, and the stalks of green onion that wilt under the heat. You pile in small mounds of white rice, which soak up the broth and become a type of canvas for every bite, each dependent upon what you're able to glean with the spoon. You start sniffling because the heat makes your nose runny. Steam hits your eyes and the pieces that fall of your spoon splash back in, speckling your shirt or sleeves along the way with little red dots that become mysterious to people you meet after the meal. You ask for more napkins because the meal is started to make you sweat.

It's in that moment, where you're drained, desperate for relief from the heat, slurping up soup in masochism, not so much from the spice, but because the glutamic content from the beef broth hits a critical point of addiction - that there's a reactive bliss of comfort that comes from after the strain. You breathe for a second, slouching ever so slightly, and take a few chopsticks full of banchan, followed by another spoonful of rice that's soaked up the spicy red broth like a sponge.

Rochelle and I finished off the meal in relative silence, maybe discussing a few things here and there, nothing significant, not that any conversation was relevant. I just felt happy enough that I was able to enjoy my favorite dish in the entire world with my favorite person in the entire world. I'd accepted that this was my last-meal dish, and I think, perhaps, I got her one step closer to agreeing with me. But who knows, she might want kare-kare or sinigang for the last meal before we go to heaven, because either way I know for sure it won't be my last bowl of greatness.

Surawon
2833 Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90006
Oddly only open from 6-11 p.m., a rarity for Koreatown.