Sometimes, I wonder if I am just another victim of the American trend for slow food, organic food, localism, and food obsession in general. And then I have a day like last Wednesday, when my mother hustled me out of the house at 10:40 a.m. so we would be sure to arrive at 버드나무집, Budnamujip to have a bowl of short rib soup before they all sold out by 11:10. I’m a victim of heredity.
Budnamujip is a grand old dame of a restaurant. It’s famous for its galbi, or barbecued short ribs, both marinated and unmarinated, with the unmarinated ones being even more expensive because the quality of the meat is that much higher. (You generally have to reserve orders of the unmarinated galbi before you get there.) One order of unmarinated meat costs about 68,000 won, about $70, and many people order more than one order per person, plus stew or cold noodles after the grilling is done. Filled with smoke, fronted with a glass butchering shop, and waitresses in ugly uniforms running around, it’s the Korean equivalent of a glorious, old-school steakhouse.
But we weren’t there to eat grilled short ribs. Its lunchtime 갈비탕, galbi-tang, or short rib soup, for 12,000 won a bowl, has its own following. As my mother puts it, for some people, eating this soup once a week is their joy in life. We actually ran into one of those people and his wife, family friends who come every Sunday and holiday, when he can close his doctor’s office. Today was Election Day, so they came with plans to eat and then to vote.
We were the first car to pull into the parking lot at 10:50, and the restaurant wasn’t open yet, so we went for a walk around the block. By the time we got back 5 minutes later, there were already 10-15 people waiting in line. When the restaurant finally opened its inner doors to the downstairs dining room, the crowd moved expertly inside and quickly spread out, claiming their tables, one, two, three.
Once everyone was seated, a waiter came by and handed out little laminated tickets with numbers on them. Four orders of galbi-tang at our table, so four tickets. There are 100 tickets. If you don’t get one of them, tough luck, no galbi-tang for you!
Once the restaurant knew who was getting a bowl of galbi-tang, no other questions were asked. Every table got the same side dishes, cubed radish kimchi, garlic scape kimchi, white water radish kimchi, and a spicy lettuce salad. Then everyone just sat there patiently for 45 minutes, secure in their possession of one of the precious galbi-tang tickets.
They arrived. Huge, steaming bowls of chopped up short ribs in a broth with chopped scallions and glistening drops of fat on the surface. The ribs crowded the stainless steel bowl that was almost as big as my head. As they say in Korean, it was time to “rip the meat off with our teeth.”
This is the kind of experience I would heartily recommend to any chowhound, but with a major caveat. You must, you must be okay with ripping meat off the bone with your teeth. You must be okay with tendon and meat and fat all crowded together on the same bit of rib, the way it grows on a cow. It is socially acceptable to eat around the parts you don’t like, but there is no way to eat this meat without picking the bone up with your hands and gnawing on it.
For about 30 minutes, there was no conversation, just the sound of us chewing and discarding our bones in the bowls left on the table for just this purpose. When there was no meat left, there was the beautiful broth to concentrate on. Like liquid gold, so rich, so smooth. I drowned the rice in my soup like a little kid, loving the way the rice grains soaked up broth, too. Whenever the richness got almost too overwhelming, there was the excellent kimchi to cut through the fat on your tongue.
Our family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Kim, asked if there were restaurants in New York where people lined up to eat even before the restaurant opened. “Oh yes,” I said, thinking of Prune. “But not for food like this!”
(Merry Christmas! I'm off to Guam for a few days with my family. If I eat anything noteworthy on Guam, I'll let you know.)