by Charles J. Waggon
“Hey, Charlie Jake, I had just the best hamburger yesterday.”
Damn woman. I was one down for a straight flush and Fred had just raised me a thousand yen. Then Binky had to go and spoil my concentration.
“Call!” Fred shouted and threw down four kings.
Well, the round was shot, so I popped open another Shiner and asked Binky where’d she have that ‘burger. Almost to Shibuya somewheres, couldn’t remember. Name of the place? Ditto. Something like “quinine” or “kooha hiney” or “fer cryin’ out loud.”
Binky’s about one fried chicken short of a church picnic, but normally she and Fred are nice folks, for Northerners. (They’re from Davenport, Iowa.) They’re my neighbors and Fred Ford, he works with me in the Tokyo Branch of General Strategics. Big defense contractor for Uncle Sam.
“It’s a Hawaiian hamburger place,” was the only thing Binky could remember.
Hawaiians making hamburgers? Well, if Vinnie Bob Vendetta at the Leaning Tower of Pizza, next to the movie theater in Cuello Rojo, Texas (my home town), can make a “Hawaiian Pizza” (canned ham, ditto for the pineapple), then I suppose it’s okay for Hawaiians to make hamburgers.
Anyroad, I was making a business call late morning near Shibuya, so I figured I’d take a look-see. My secretary Kumiko said she’d heard of it, kinda near the Jintan Building. Damn near an hour, walking back and forth, no hulaburgers in sight.
I was way hungry when I spotted the Little Seoul Diner. The “Diner” part I liked, but I also like Korean food. Had to. Back in ’53, I was holed up for near six months on the wrong side of the DMZ with a farm family. Doing a little installations work for the boys in Langley, and they’d set up Sung’s barn as my base camp. Sung was also on the payroll. His wife, built like a little refrigerator, made the damndest kimchee. That’s Korean hot pickles. Said HOT. Have the meanest hombre in Laredo cryin’ for mercy.
So I go in and chow down. Lunch #4, bibin reimen, those think brown noodles made from wheat and starch from some kinda potato. Come cold with a sesame sauce, all spiced up. Think of peanut butter and Tabasco, but lighter and less hot. And a bowl of soo che bee, soup and dumplings, nothing exotic since it’s a lot like my Aunt Earlene’s chicken and dumpling soup except without the chicken. Dumplings were not too thick and doughy, not too thin and soft, but chewy and wiggly—just right.
Best of all, the kimchee here’s the real deal, and that means sour, too. If the kimchee you’re eating tastes only like salt and hot pepper, then throw it out; it ain’t no good. Kimchee is fermented, like how you start sour mash. Has to be sour cause it’s still alive. Lunch was ¥800, and Charlie Jake sez thumbs up.
Went back for dinner with Kumiko and it was even better. They got five kinds of noodles, five kinds of rice, ¥800 to ¥1,000. They got six kinds of kimchee, four kinds of chige, a hot and spicy stew, comes in a big bowl for everyone. They got four kinds of chijimi, like a big thick tortilla, but thicker with different kinds of stuff inside.
For ¥2,500 you get your Samgetang, which is a whole chicken stuffed with sticky rice, ginseng root and a whole lotta herbs, said to put lead in your pencil. More than enough for two. For ¥2,000, they got your Possam, which is raw oysters, steamed pork and kimchee rolled up in Chinese cabbage. Made me think of Mrs. Sung’s… she used to pickle oysters in kimchee. Just stay upwind of the shed out back.
Of course, they got grilled meat, yaki-niku. Damn near every Korean restaurant in Japan’s got it. But Korean food in Japan is like the kind of Mexican food what white folks eat in shopping malls back home. You can eat it, but it sure ain’t Mexican. Don’t get me started.
But at least at this restaurant they bring you a little hibachi with burning coals to grill the meat how you what. And they got all the cuts, too.
What counts most here is you can eat a whole Korean meal without even seeing grilled meat. And most stuff they serve tastes like what the Sungs ate.
Oh, and drinks. Now don’t go all googly-eyed over the wine list like Kumiko did; just cause they got wines form France and South America and wherever, and most run ¥2,500 to ¥4,000. You don’t want wine with this food. Instead, for ¥700 you get yourself a glass of makkoli, a cloudy white rice brew, got a bit of fizz and 7% alcohol. Some people call it don-don-ju. Goes better with the food.
If that don’t give you enough buzz, then get yourself a straight shot of Isami, 50 proof white lightning made outta sweet potatoes, comes from Kagoshima. That’ll give you plenty of altitude.
Adios. See ya next time when Kumiko goes AWOL and I track her down in Mogambo.
Agedeji—Little Seoul Diner, Pal Aoyama, 1st Fl., 2-5-9, Shibuya, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 5464-0565. Closed Sundays.