We arrived at Incheon International Airport at 3:50pm local time. Two hours later, after dumping our bags at the hotel, we hailed a cab and headed to Myeoung-dong, the largest and best street food area in the city. There was little of the “let me introduce you gently to street food” there, with its municipal pamphlets and over-sanitized instructions about how it was all supposed to work and not kill you. It was just there, in your face, eat at your own risk. The walkways swelled with people and there was some inspiring food to be experienced. And we were famished, having starved ourselves during the 17 hour trip (it wasn’t too difficult with what United Airlines had to offer on their menu).
After our fill of street food, we headed to a quaint mom-and-pop noodle/bbq shack down the street. They served a very simple menu consisting of cold, spicy noodles and L.A.-style ribs (kalbi) grilled on a charcoal grill and served on a wooden block. The flavour was understated and delicious, and the presentation of it was one that I had not expected. Firstly, it was thinly sliced. Secondly, there were no exposed bones. This gave me my first “Aha!” moment since my arrival. The melt-in-your-mouth quality of the beef had me thinking that L.A. ribs, when prepared this way, could be better enjoyed by moving away from the conventional method of eating it. I wondered: what if we could put it between some buns instead of on a searing pan or wooden block and served with rice? What could be simpler and more effective to introduce non-Koreans to this great cut of beef than by serving it as a burger? I wanted to explore this more in the coming days.
We ended up in the Gundae University district, a network of alleys that intersected at the center of the greatest nightly frosh party in the universe. The spectacle makes Mardi Gras feel like a wake. Every conceivable kind of restaurant and bar managed to find a space inside its three square blocks, leaving little but a tissue-sized paper to stand on for a moment to wonder which door we would be shoved into.
And as we were carried into an Irish-y pub (with no Irish people working there or Guinness on tap), I noticed a poster of PSY hanging on the front door. I had made arrangements to meet an old friend the next morning in Gangnam (South River), an affluent neighbourhood in Seoul that the singer-dancer had put on the map, oh, about 500 million times and counting. I wanted to find out if there was more substance than style to the food that they consumed there. She promised to take me to the restaurants where he had been recently sighted. I would find PSY, she said- if not in person, then at least in some other inspired form.
My quest to find the patron saint of Gungnam Style had begun…