Ever since I moved to Korea town, my bus ride drops me at the corner of Olympic and Normandie. As the days get shorter, the neon sign of the Gamja Gol Restaurant becomes a calling. There is nothing fancy about the restaurant’s façade, yet the large photos of GamjaTang, Yukgaejang and Bibimbap seduce me and I walk in.
– “One person?” A Korean woman wearing an apron jumps at me as I walked in.
– “Yes,” I respond.
Without further words, she directs me to a table in one of the two eating rooms. I sit down at a table facing a big television. All the programming is in Korean. As I look around, I recognized from the photos a few of the dishes people are eating. I don’t understand any written sings. I find comfort in not understanding, a familiar feeling. I am an outsider visiting a foreign land.
The waitress comes back to my table with ice water, a paper tablemat and chopsticks.
– “Ready to order?” (She says with a think Korean accent).
– “Yes, I would like a Bibimbap.” I respond with my Spanish one.
– “Dol-sot?” she responds.
– “Pardon me?”(Is she asking me if I don’t eat meet?)
– “Hut?” She responds.
I am lost in the conversation. I look to a young Korean couple sitting on the right side table, hoping they speak English. As they suck beef bones from a large bowl of soup and leave them on top of the table, the woman says:
– “Do you want the Bibimbap on a hot plate?”
– “Dol-sot Bibimbup?” It is much better, responds her eating partner.
– “Oh yes yes hot” I replied gazing back at the waitress. “ Please a Dolsot Bibimbap!”
As I wait for my dish to come, I think of the many conversations I have had with friends over meals back in home country, Spain. In many of those meals, we bring up the question – if you were dying tomorrow, what would you have as your last meal?
My mom’s Pollo al Ajillo (fried garlic with chicken) put an end to 8 years of being a vegetarian. Since then, her recipe is high up on that list, along with Robata from Kirala, a Japanese restaurant located in Berkeley, California.
When the Gamja Gol waitress is back at my table with a tray of 6 different small plates, my mind connects Korean food to Spanish Tapas. As soon as I sit down, I am fed appetizers all meant to open my appetite. On this Korean table my meal does not start with olives or slices of cheese with bread. I am taking bites of nameless veggies with odd textures.
With the waiter’s help I unveil this enigma – she jots down the names in English and Korean.
Her lists reads:
Jap chae (potato noodle with vegetables)
Kong na mal ma chin, (salted bean sprouts)
Mu chae (spiced radish)
O ei mu chim (spiced cucumber)
Muk mu chim (seasoned jelly cake make)
Immersed in the world of sweet and sour and spice, the sizzling Dolsot arrives. The delicate placement of vegetables creates a colorful palette that opens my senses. At the center of it the bowl, a simple raw egg takes the spotlight and all is covering a succulent bed of rice.
My eyes recognize layers of soybean sprouts, daikon, cucumber and zucchini thinly sliced. As my chopsticks venture out into the plate I grasp the unknown. A bite of brown stems gets wedged between my teeth. Eyebrows arched. I slowly take one by one out of my mouth as if pulling straw.
– “Mixed it all now,” the same woman on the right reminds me.
As I follow her instructions, I concentrate on my stirring around the hot iron bowl. Appreciating all the layers that make this dish, I get my first bite of this crispy rice. My mind travels back in time to a paella memory. “It is the sucarrat (the sticky rice burned at the bottom of the pan), what takes me home. What makes the Bibimbap at Gamja-Gol so striking is the perfect balance between sweet, spicy and salty. You can enjoy this cooking lesson for only $8.99.
As I dig into eating, the Korean television shows a diaper commercial. A three-year -old boy sitting on my left side screams “baby, baby” as he points into television.
The beauty of Gamja Gol doesn’t lay in its decoration or design but in the fact that it feels likes a family restaurant where families come to come just be and eat with their loved ones. Children have also a place in this restaurant. Babies sit on their parent’s laps as adults sip fermented soybean soup and stare at a pork spine stews as if there were in meditation.
By the time my chopsticks are grabbing the last bites of crispy rice and all the veggies are gone, I am no longer feeling like an outsider.
As I step put of the restaurant the waitress says: “Come again.” I respond with a smile.
I look at the clock and it is almost bedtime. I turn that familiar corner that takes me directly into my home I am still enjoying the taste of the last bites. “I will go back to Gamja-GoI” I tell myself. As I grab for my keys to open the gate, I see myself acting like my cat, licking paws out of pleasure.
– Gemma Cubero