Last night was a surprise 40th birthday dinner party for a friend – we went to an upscale Korean place. Korean is one of Michael’s favorite types of cuisine, but for my part I’ve always been slightly less than enthusiastic – kimchi, a staple of Korean meals, is something I cannot stomach – its olfactory footprint alone is enough to get me complaining. But we had a lovely time, and there were ample, deliciously kimchi-free options for me.
While the food was traditional enough, the rest of the restaurant said anything but a normal Korean establishment. They gave a decent amount of attention to decor, the staff appeared not to be related to each other, and articulate explanations of specials abounded. Most Korean restaurants, in Chicago at least, are small, family run places that cater to Koreans. They will certainly serve folks like me, but the service will be lacking and there will be no explanations for the uninitiated. The decor will prominently feature wood paneling, perhaps accented by dusty nylon greenery and a string of Christmas lights or two. That’s the norm.
But once, at one of these divey ma and pa places, we happened upon a birthday party. Apparently Koreans like to get together for Korean food for their birthdays too. That large party of about 20 was the only other party in the restaurant – if I remember correctly my table had five that night. The mood of the party was quite festive – someone from the birthday party came over with a big grin to bring us cake. Of course it was terrible rice flour stuff – to say Korean cuisine is not known for its confectionary creations is an understatement – but it was a lovely gesture.
And then they started singing. Korean Karaoke. One by one, taking turns, young and old, singing their hearts out. They were filled with joy – one of those perfect shared moments for all involved, and there we were, interloping witnesses. We managed to sing along when “Happy Birthday to You” came up. We had a great time. For me, the karaoke-induced mood even eclipsed the presence of kimchi.
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