My Koreatown co-author Deuki Hong once told me that Koreans are, by nature, a shy bunch.
After over two years of immersing myself in Korean food culture—traveling around the United States and to Korea, eating and drinking with the gustatory courage of Jonathan Gold and Andrew Zimmern—I have many words to describe Koreans. Shy is not one of them.
I encountered hugs, warm smiles, gracious plates of banchan (the small saucers of kimchi, seasoned vegetables and mayo-spiked potato salad dutifully laid out before the meal) and pots of bubbling stews that scalded the tongue and smacked the sinuses. I learned to geonbae—the Korean word for “cheers”—with a communal click of the cheap shot glass that’s then drained in a flick of the wrist, again and again and again. “The beauty of soju,” Deuki says, of the potent and ubiquitous Korean firewater sold basically wherever kimchi is found (which is everywhere). “It’s the key unlocking your soul.”
To an outsider, the near-constant presence of alcohol in Korean eating can be jarring. When I was in Seoul last December, I visited a restaurant specializing in juk, Korean porridge, and was seated near a rowdy group of young men. On their table were two oversized bottles of Korean OB lager, nearly drained, and an empty bottle of soju. It was barely nine in the morning.
In America, Koreans’ supreme passion for drinking peacocks mostly at night and runs at least three or four rounds longer than is probably advised. So when Talia asked me to take her and the ladies of PUNCH for a proper Koreatown crawl, I offered a fair warning: We’re going the distance.
We began at a pojangmacha-style restaurant called Pocha 32. Pronounced “PO-jang-ma-CHA” (“pocha” for short), the term literally means “covered wagon,” and in Korean cities the establishments are very modest affairs—tents packed with stubby plastic stools and Styrofoam dinnerware. In America, the pocha has come indoors but offers a similar mix of dishes—known as anju—that are best eaten with alcohol. (In Koreatown, we dedicate an entire chapter to this style of eating, with dishes like fiery gochujang-glazed chicken feet, called buldak bal.)
Here, we snacked on jwipo (warm fish jerky) and haemul pajeon (squid and scallion pancake) while we waited for a sterno-fired cauldron of budae jjigae—a spicy stew bobbing with kimchi, ramen noodles, tofu, processed meats and American cheese. This is classic anju. We spooned it into small bowls while judiciously dividing up the tinned meats (Spam was in particularly high demand at our table).
Along with a modest banchan spread, we partook in the subak soju, a frat party-style punch served in a watermelon that’s been hollowed out, its flesh placed in a blender and buzzed with honey and lemon juice. After being strained, the juice is placed back in the melon, mixed with soju and Sprite and ladled into glasses. This is dangerous stuff to start with, particularly alongside the large bottles of Hite that would follow us all night as stand-ins for tap water.
This stop at Pocha 32 was only the beginning. We braved millennials (and boozed-up LinkedIn employees) at a weekly beer pong tourney at Krush, a hidden beer and chicken wing place tucked four stories above busy 32nd Street. We returned again to pojangmacha fare (spicy, stir-fried pork belly and tofu, called dubu kimchi, alongside jokbal, or braised pig’s feet) at Bangia and tossed in a few rounds of Seoul Train—the grand Koreatown tradition of combining beer glasses filled with Hite, shot glasses filled with soju and gravity—for good measure.
Undeterred, we moved onto Soju Haus, a second-story lounge known for its infused soju offerings, where Deuki, having just wrapped up his shift at his restaurant, Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, joined us. We buffered a few soju laybacks with dak dong jib, which loosely translates to “chicken shit house” (i.e., grilled gizzard).
Weary, but still miraculously coherent, we dragged ourselves across the street for our final stop at Baekjeong for platters of marinated short ribs grilled at the table, doenjang jjigae (an umami nuclear bomb of beef and soy bean paste) and the house cocktail: a highlighter-green mix of honeydew melon, makgeolli (unfiltered Korean rice wine) and Midori. We washed it all down with shots of soju, beer and more shots of soju.
Past one a.m., we took our first pause in nearly five hours. Packs of people were still streaming down 32nd Street, and we briefly contemplated a noribang (Korean karaoke) stop. In a moment of unexpected clarity, we all agreed that a bonus round would have to come another night.
Pocha 32 | 15 W 32nd St, New York, NY 10001
To Eat: Budae jjigae (army base stew), jwipo (fish jerky), haemul pajeon (squid pancake).
To Drink: Subak soju (watermelon punch).
Krush | 2 W 32nd St, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10001
To Eat: Soy-garlic chicken wings, discounted during happy hour.
To Drink: Tap beer.
Bangia | 11 E 32nd St, New York, NY 10016
To Eat: Jokbal (marinated pig’s feet), dubu kimchi (sautéed pork belly, tofu and kimchi).
To Drink: Soju, beer, makgeolli.
Soju Haus | 315 5th Ave, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10016
To Eat: Bossam (braised pork belly), jogaetang (spicy clam broth).
To Drink: Flavored soju.
Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong | 1 E 32nd St, New York, NY 10016
To Eat: Kalbi (marinated beef short ribs), kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew), kimchi-rice shake box.
To Drink: Melon makgeolli, beer, soju. Repeat.