>Sarah and I had made relatively last minute plans to return to my parents’ house in New Jersey for the New Year. That meant, we were going to eat. A lot.
The morning of our flight back home, I had called my dad to let him know that our flight was going to be delayed. He asked me where I wanted to eat lunch.
Later, I learned from my father, this is a frequent way that Koreans used to greet each other after the Korean War. ‘Have you eaten yet?’ ‘Did you have something good to eat?’ Such questions towards travelers or guests were gestures of food generosity, a highly regarded social value in the tumultuous post-war times, my dad told me.
Sometimes, I think my dad just makes things up.
But either way, the answer to his question was simple. For lunch, we went to one of my favorite places in New Jersey, Mandarin in Pallisades Park. Mandarin is on the second floor of an office complex style building in a very Korean neighborhood. If this street were in any other city in America, it would be called Korea town. But here, it’s just called Broad Avenue. On this street, there is a Korean newspaper, a Korean video rental store, a Korean diner, a Korean bakery, a Korean bank, and, of course, a Korean dry cleaner and a Korean grocer. Every time I return back to New Jersey, my dad likes to tell me that the Korean population in Pallisades Park is 40%. Where he gets this figure, I have no idea.
At Mandarin, they make the noodles in house and by hand. They used to have closed circuit tv’s so you could watch the guys in the kitchen as they made the noodles, but that was several years ago. Today, they have several large flat screens that play korean soap operas with subtitles that are sometimes in English and sometimes in Korean. But even though you can’t see them make the noodles, you can still hear the pounding, slapping sound as they continuously make their noodles throughout the day.
When you go to a Korean restaurant, you automatically get banchan, which is a collection of small plates of condiments that go with the meal. Think of it like bread at an italian restaurant, but with pickled vegetables, rather than focaccia.
At Mandarin, the banchan is modest, but typical for a noodle house. One of the side dishes that is served has yellow disks and onions. The yellow disks are dakgwang, a pickled radish. I have no idea what makes it yellow. Alongside that is raw onions.
You pour on some rice wine vinegar, which is placed table side like salt and pepper (along with soy sauce and chili powder). You then dip the dhakwang and onions in a salty brown sauce. It’s a tasty start to the meal. The piquant pickled vegetables plus the extra vinegar really gets your taste buds perked up.
Alongside the dhakwang and onions is kaktoogee, a different kind of pickled radish. Unlike dakgwang, which is yellow for no discernible reason, kaktoogee is red for a simple one; it is spicy.
That’s it for the banchan (side dishes/condiments). Like I said. Pretty basic. The waitress came, and my dad started ordering food without opening the menu. Real Koreans don’t use a menu.
The first thing we ordered was kahn mandu. Kahn mandu translates to fried dumplings, which confuses me. Because kahn (fried), to me, always sounds like kuwon (grilled). But I have a history of mishearing Korean words. Gohchoo versus kohchoo, for example.
The kahn mandu and Mandarin is particularly delicious because they are extra large, which allows for a more generous serving of filling per dumpling. Plus, the gyoza skin is a little bit thicker than usual, and it might even be a bao style of dumpling wrapper. Either way, it is deep fried, which gives it a simultaneous crispy and doughy texture that is quite nice, especially on cold days. Think of them like extra large toasted ravioli, if you know what those are.
After the mandu, we had Tang Soo Yook, which is a deep fried sweet and sour dish. This time, we had beef Tang Soo Yook. We always have beef Tang Soo Yook when my mom isn’t around because beef Tang Soo Yook is delicious. For some reason, my mother thinks that pork Tang Soo Yook is much healthier than the beef version, and so she always makes us get pork.
Sometimes, I know my mom just makes things up.
Tang Soo Yook gets served in a wonderfully light sauce that is slightly green in color, which is typical for how Korean people make this Chinese dish. The sweet and sour is light and fresh. And it is the reason why I generally prefer Korean-made Chinese food.
My Korean-American friends tease me about liking this dish so much. Apparently, this food is for kids, like hot dogs or crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But I care not. It’s good. And hot dogs are one of my favorite foods, anyhow.
The pace of food at a Korean restaurant always crescendos. Unlike an American restaurant where the food for the table all comes out at once, food at a Korean restaurant comes out whenever it is ready. And that is when you begin eating. So we started eating the mandu and our banchan (side dish/condiments). Then, our table had banchan, mandu, and tang soo yook, which felt like a lot of food. Then, just as we began to start feeling full, our main courses arrived.
My Dad and I ordered Cha Jang Myun, which translates loosely to salty paste noodles. When Sarah tried this for the first time, she didn’t like it. I told her it would be noodles in a brown sauce. But I don’t think she was quite prepared for what she got.
When she first saw the dish, she considered the dish to be noodles in black sauce, which caught her off guard. Then, a busy Korean waitress began asking her things while holding a pair of scissors. This, too, caught Sarah off guard. (When you are a child or if you are a foreigner, they ask you if you want your noodles cut. This is because Asian noodles are really, really long and therefore difficult to eat with chopsticks if you are not congenitally familiar with them or otherwise lack manual dexterity).
This second time at Mandarin, Sarah ordered mushroom fried rice, opting to split some of my Cha Jang Myun dish. I did not know that Mandarin had Chinese style fried rice. But, like all of my favorite Korean restaurants in New Jersey, the place does call itself a Chinese restaurant.
We didn’t get the noodles of my Cha Jang Myun cut, which made eating the dish difficult for Sarah. I told her that she needs to kind of chomp off a mouthful and let the rest fall back into the plate. This is completely contrary to every rule of American noodle eating etiquette but is exactly what you are supposed to do amongst Koreans.
At that moment, I was reminded of the movie, Mr. Baseball.