Taste: Seoul, Upper Darby

A food lover goes in search of authenticity.

I had noticed Pojangmacha before. Sitting in a former White Castle building in a lonely Upper Darby parking lot, it always seemed uninviting and squalid, and it was unclear exactly what happened in that squat box. It rarely seemed to be open; the shades were always drawn. It could have been a brothel, a gambling house, a Kiwanis club, a restaurant.

But on my way home one recent weeknight, the hungry food geek in me — the one who trolls websites like Chowhound and eGullet, who is drawn to back alleys and strip malls in search of dosas, or pho, or soup dumplings — was seduced by the building’s dilapidated glow. A string of boring meals had me on the prowl.

Inside were Korean students, Korean businessmen, leather-clad members of the Korean Triad (or so I imagined), and the exotic clamor of Korean words. The few booths were over-occupied, and the counter stools were filled with people alternating between drags of cigarettes and slurps of ramen noodles. I was the only non-Korean in the room. I began to think this was a bad idea, despite the lovely sweet-sour-salty aroma in the air. But my neurotic voice-in-the-head was interrupted by a suited man who invited me to sit with him and his friends, saying, “You look like you need some help.”

The friends chatted in Korean, and I sat quietly until the Heinekens appeared. The familiar green bottle was a comfort. I gulped the beer and finally relaxed, so much so that I reached for the bottle of soju. As I grabbed the bottle, Pojangmacha’s soft-spoken owner, who was waiting tables, snatched it from my hand. She was upset that nobody had taught me proper Korean table etiquette: You never pour your own shot in public. I was instructed to take the small glass in my right hand, touch my left fingers to my right forearm, and graciously accept a drink. I’d had soju before; it’s basically a peasant’s liquor, and it’s not especially good. But tonight it seemed smooth and slightly sweet.

It’s the overall experience of Pojangmacha that made that soju taste different, better. We food geeks are always searching for that which is authentic. It’s what brought us to Washington Avenue for tongue tacos and banh mi in the days before the Italians yielded control to the Mexicans and Vietnamese. On sites like eGullet, people argue for days about such silliness as the authenticity (or not) of the pizza flour at Osteria. But for me, the authenticity of an experience is much more rewarding than the authenticity of the ingredients.

After testing my shot protocol a few too many times, the men announced that we needed some food with our drinks. Like its Korean compeers, Pojangmacha sells cheap booze and street food, the point being not to eat dinner but to put something in your stomach to brace for the drunkenness. I was completely at the whim of my new friends, who could have ordered “fish bone water,” “some kind of curly thing from a shell,” and “barbecued cow tongue, like steak,” my best understanding of some of the items on the menu, written only in Korean. These foods may be common on the other side of the world, but they’re about as rare in Philadelphia as an experience like Pojangmacha. We settled, instead, on budae jigae, or “troop stew,” a spicy, brothy noodle dish studded with hot dogs and Spam. I’m not a hot dog fan, and I’d only tasted Spam once before in my life, but I finished my bowl and went back for seconds. The men kept asking if I liked it, smiling when I told them yes. I was convinced I was ready to brave the carts of Dongdaemun Market, 7,000 miles away.

But as I placed my spoon into the rice bowl in front of me, the owner started yelling again. It turns out that this simple act — sticking a spoon upright in a bowl of rice — is anathema in a Korean restaurant. It is, of all things, a symbol of death.

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