All except for the man next to us.
"Have you been here before? Have you had this before? It's an... acquired taste," he admits. Both he and his companion have been fairly silent until now, looking only into the depths of their stews.
Yelp reviews have already told me this. He tells me this. And now the waitress will come over and take her turn, albeit in extra-tactful waitress language. "This is Korean specialty..." she says, trailing off.
What is? Chu uh tang - mudfish stew.
Actually, by the time the waitress finishes fussing with our seasonings, it's almost all the way to hummus.
Let me tell you something about Korean hospitality.
No matter the language barrier, you'll never feel lost. You'll never feel confused. You'll never look at your food and wonder 'how should I eat this? What should I season this with? What utensil should I use?' You won't have time to wonder anything before a guiding hand is doing it all for you, sometimes up to the point of tying your bib on and feeding you.
I've had my seafood pancake spiced, my cod stew sauced, and my purple rice mixed by the impossibly sweet proprietress of Western Doma Noodle in Los Angeles.
So here, faced with mudfish stew, we don't have to lift a finger. The waitress sets the bowls down, adds the garlic, adds some onions, shakes three types of powder over it, and positions them just so with inviting spoons at the precise angle for grabbing, then departs.
Leaving us with our stew and our second dish, stir-fried octopus.
Here's where this story gets difficult and strange.
But the food confuses me. It's not that the mudfish is strong or distasteful - it's just bland, a slightly herbal-tasting oatmeal broken with green onion stalks. This is a surprise. What is the acquired taste, exactly? Do I have to wait to develop the tastebuds required to taste it? And the octopus, while coated in a wonderful spicy red paste, requires the chewing muscles of a canine tug-of-war champ.
The waitress comes back and sits down next to us. "Is it OK?" she asks cautiously, watching my mom try in vain to bite an octopus tentacle in half. "Hard to chew?"
"In Korea we like it to be chewy," she says. "My daughter was born here. She likes soft food. Uh, tender food! She likes it tender. But this dish," - she gestures to the octopus - "is supposed to be chewy."
It had never occurred to me that people might prefer their food to be like gum, which is strange, because every other preference has occurred to me. I unblinkingly accepted the gamut of preferences from rare to charred meat, white to dark meat, raw to cooked fish, and every cut of meat from skin all the way inwards to intestines. I'd never thought of chewy and tender on the same continuum, though. I just assumed tenderer = better.
But when I hear it, I believe her: a memory springs forth.
When I was in Busan, in the formidable shadow of the Jagalchi Fish Market, I took a plunge and ordered stir-fried eel at one of the specialty restaurants on the side streets. The luckier eels writhed in the outdoor tanks as my specimens arrived at my table, sizzling, in a big aluminum foil-lined pot.
On my computer, this picture's filename is Bad Eel.jpg. No lie. The eel had such a strange, tough, rubber texture, almost like what you'd expect raw snake to feel like if you put it into your mouth. I had lots of trouble eating it because my teeth were screaming at me that it was raw meat, that it was a far cry from the pillowy anago and unagi of my childhood at sushi restaurants, that I should spit it out, that I should send it back.
Everyone in the restaurant looked at my cringing face like it, and therefore I, was crazy.
I think of this as I try to reassure the kind waitress at Nam Won Gol that we aren't angry at her or her octopus,* while at the same time trying to force my jaw to persevere when all it wants to do is lie down on the grass and take a nap.
Maybe there are some dishes that require the cooperation of muscle memory and its complex network of intuitive preferences to truly appreciate. My jaw's memories, unfortunately, mostly involve associating pleasure with being lazy.
* For what it's worth, the couple next to us whispers that if we want tenderness, we should go for the squid next time.