I’ve never had much luck with Korean food anywhere I’ve ever had it over the years. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, but it seems that I’ve never actually been able to order what I’ve wanted to try, always assured by some waiter that I wouldn’t like the dish because it was too Korean for my American taste. I’ve always walked away lukewarm about the whole experience. So, when I was invited to a friend’s birthday dinner at a place called Pocha 32 near Herald Square in Manhattan’s Koreatown, I shrugged my shoulders and prepared once more to be advised against my initial gastronomic impulses.
The entrance to Pocha 32 was a nondescript stairway next to a cellphone shop, which led past posters advertising various kinds of Korean alcohol, into a single small dining room. A dim, greenish light pervaded the place and the low ceiling was canopied by green nets strung with the cheap aluminum caps of soju (the Korean cousin of vodka) bottles to give it the feel of a night market, so I’m told.
My group, about eight or so, were easy to spot as they were the only non-Koreans in the house. But I felt perfectly at home as I wafted the initial round of kitchen smells — garlic, kimchee and squid. What made the meal really great though, is that I didn’t have to order a thing. My friends had taken care of everything. Due to real interest in the culture (not to mention friendship with the owner) their knowledge of Korean food far eclipsed my own. Given this circumstance, I threw aside my menu as soon as the first watermelon arrived to the table.
It was half a melon, really, which had been carved out and filled with a heady froth of soju-infused watermelon juice, which then was ladled into tin cups. This stuff was to remain a constant throughout the evening, and no matter how much beer or straight-up soju was sloshed down, there was always the soft, lightly alcoholic fragrance of watermelon around the table. After having drained the first melon, two more were promptly brought to us, as was a procession of entrees, pitchers of beer and little green bottles of soju. Not bad for a place whose slogan, “Mashi-go chuk-ja,” loosely translated, means “we drink until we die.” Despite the sheer amount of food I was presented with, everything came off more festive than gratuitous as laughs and food were exchanged from person to person around the table.
The initial appetizer was a pie-sized scallion pancake with mixed seafood, followed shortly thereafter by two steaming pots of Budae Jingae, one of the house’s signature dishes, which my friend also called Korean Army Stew. It was a ruddy, spicy broth with beef, seafood, ramen, scallions, mushrooms and pieces of kielbasa, which I found out later were actually pieces of Spam. Whatever a diner’s Spam prejudices may be, Budae Jingae can do a lot to change one’s opinion of the pink stuff, as it is seriously delicious. While the soup began innocently enough, it possessed a creeping spice that became more apparent with each spoonful. Despite this, I couldn’t get enough of it.
After a few helpings, Budae Jingae had induced a light sweat from everyone at the table and it was time for a breather. For some lighter fare, we were brought a platter heaped with french fries, tempura-style chicken and raw veggies with a yogurt dressing. Once we’d cooled off a bit with some beer and veggies, a waiter appeared carrying a covered tray and a small meat cleaver. The tray was placed on the table and the cover whisked away to reveal a whole squid, stuffed with pork belly, scallions and onions, which the waiter wasted no time in slicing to pieces. Personally, I’m a big fan of squid and most other seafood, and this was some of the best surf and turf I’d ever had. Covered in a dark, sweet glaze, the inherent chew of the squid was complemented perfectly by the fattiness of the pork belly and it paired damn near perfectly with a cold pint of Sappho.
As we made a move to ask for the check, the lights began flashing in time with much wait staff hand-clapping and singing, and out it came — a birthday cake with candles for my friend to blow out. Though I usually don’t think much of restaurant birthday songs, this had the air of a good joke and everyone seemed to be having a great time anyway, patrons and staff alike. We ate the cake, signed the check and rolled back onto the street feeling full but hardly gluttonous. It was like getting away with something, having eaten that much food with no heavy I-need-to-take-a-nap feeling afterward. It had been my best venture with Korean food yet.
A day or so later, I was chatting with my friend, the birthday boy, and told him how much I’d enjoyed everything, considering my track record with Korean restaurants. Then I remarked how, with all we ate that night, I never saw any kimchee on the table. He told me they didn’t serve us any — they thought traditional kimchee would be too spicy. Go figure. Still, Pocha 32 is a great spot to knock back a little soju and gorge on some real-deal Korean fare.