When I felt fresh and adventurous, ready to eat whatever came out of the kitchen, or when I felt flush, ready to jet off to some specialty restaurant chosen from the guidebook, I didn't care that I couldn't communicate. But when I was nearing the end of a long day, exhausted and in need of sustenance (that wasn't convenience store ramyun) before collapsing into bed, I didn't have the energy to risk inadvertently ordering some twelve-plate four-course monstrosity.
I couldn't speak Korean or read the script (all I retain now is the flourished underline of the ‘n’ sound) and I recall many a stomach-rumbling night where I peered through doorways into rooms austerely decorated with inscrutable text. Often, it was actually carved into wood like an art project. This was both beautiful and utterly irrelevant to my interests:
Ah.. I see. You serve food here. (Thanks, Joshua Lurie, for the picture.)
I would scour the guidebook for the characters for the dish I sought, and try to remember it, but it faded like the details of abstract art. A few days of this and I started writing the dish of the day on the back of my hand.
Unfortunately, I still had to peer through doorways like a myopic looky-loo and squint at long lists of menu options, and Koreans were too friendly to stand aside for my confusion. Up they would bound, cheerily pointing at their abstract menu art, and I would consider the implications of standing in the doorway comparing the back of my hand to the wall for ten minutes, then flee.
My unlikely savior turned out to be in the form of a fish roe rice bowl (al bap, 알밥).
Nearly every casual restaurant had a version. The characters were easy to spot. It tasted amazing, and I always felt healthy and fully nourished afterwards. They even laid off on the omnipresent red pepper paste (gochujang, 고추장) a tiny bit.
It would briefly occur to me as I was eating my fourth al-bap of the week that a stone pot full of crackly rice, fish eggs, seaweed, hot-sauce drenched cabbage and radish, and egg was a strange comfort food for someone raised in the Midwest, but I honestly felt like this dish was stroking my forehead (though sweaty fromgochujang), murmuring soothing words, and tucking me into bed. It wiped the dancing Korean script from in front of my eyes.
And the taste! Pure ocean over rice, but unmistakably Korean in how strongly the vegetables were pickled. The individual tiny snaps of the eggs breaking, contained by the crackling seaweed strips and pot-blackened rice, gave my teeth reason to pay good attention, and set up a kind of hypnotic rhythm section in my jaw.
It formed a perfect beat for me to find a subway stop and stumble home.
Where to get al-bap in Orange County:
According to Yelp, a smattering of restaurants in Buena Park, and of course, Koreatown in LA. However, I have so far been hesitant to ruin my amazing memories by trying it here.