Whenever you travel to a foreign country, you know you're up against some interesting challenges. It's a loss of control -- you don't speak the language, so you have to depend on the kindness of others, engage in some creative guesswork, and hope for the best. And in most cases, it all turns out great. At first it seems like a setback, but I think this is one of the reasons why we travel. The crazy adventures, the being plopped in a world that is bizarre and completely new, the starting out as a doe-eyed stranger with everything to gain, and gradually gaining it. By giving in to that loss of control, you learn to embrace a whole set of practices, experiences, even personalities you didn't even know existed. It's such euphoria -- laughing like a little kid at what unusual turns your life can take.
I feel like this kind of experience exists for me, a million times over, about four miles from home. Los Angeles has a huge and sprawling Koreatown, and while a lot of it is totally accessible to gringos like myself, there is much that really does require guidance from someone who knows the language. So,when you do get to peek in, it's a privilege. Last night my friend Hannah, who is Korean, introduced us to Dansungsa, a soju pub that requires a local guide. The night was a tiny slice of what traveling through Seoul might be like, a mini-adventure in being the foreigner.
Dansungsa is in a strip mall on 6th, and has no English sign. It is recognizable by an old image of Kim Jung Il (in sweet sweet shades) on the sign. The parking lot: fancy cars, various couples consisting of non-descript guys with decked out ultra-feminine girls teetering around on high heels.
intimate -- dim light, lots of wood, and it's walled off into small areas of a few tables each. The walls are densely layered with newspaper clippings, graffiti, and posters of old Korean movie stars. We were completely at Hannah's mercy here -- the waitress handed her the all-Korean menu, printed on a block of wood, and we were on our way.
What I learned about Korean bar food: there's a lot of egg (with ketchup, obviously), there's a lot of red, unexpected items are molded into cakes of varying shapes, and there is a lot of fiery hot. Our eyes were much bigger than our mouths when it came to ordering, but this meant we got to try a lot of different dishes. The minute you sit down, they start bringing you stuff. They start off with a bowl of spicy communal soup with cabbage, and maybe parsnips?, and totally incongruously, sticks of celery with ranch dressing. Whatever. We then ordered a million dishes:
- kim bap -- tiny perfectly circular sushi-like rolls filled with rice, egg, and meat
- a rolled omelet with herbs, served with ketchup
- a pot of (totally) tubular rice cakes, triangular fish cakes, and various other geometric wonders in a very red very spicy sauce, which was delicious
- a mix of squid, mushrooms, scallions, and other vegetables in a different very red very spicy sauce, which was chewy
- a giant pancake of eggs and scallions, served with a soy dipping sauce, which was really yummy and really simple and I want to make it myself sometime
- a skewer of fish balls -- the same pasty mix that is used to make the fish triangles, now in sphere form, grilled in a very red very spicy sauce
- shrimp wontons -- whole shrimp wrappen in wonton skins with cream cheese and fried. yum, of course.
The place was really lively, and as the night progressed, it became more so. Adding to the surreal where-am-I feel, our table was visited by a man wearing an inflatable soju bottle. He was accompanied by a pretty Korean lady who talked to us for a very long time. We had absolutely no idea what she was saying but she had a very soothing voice.
This was a really fun experience. How often do you get to hang out with a giant soju bottle? Not very, I bet. There are no international travel plans in my near future, but me and my soju bottle friend, we're gonna have some good times this summer.
Dansungsa is at 3317 W. Sixth St., in a strip mall on the northeast corner of 6th and Berendo.