I met friend and blogger John McCrarey in Itaewon for lunch today. It was a get-together of friends, but also a meeting with a purpose, as John had very kindly done the legwork to purchase a DVD/Blu-ray player for me on base, since that's where he works, and today was the day he'd be handing the player over to yours truly.
We met in front of the Hamilton Hotel, which is a pretty standard meeting place for us scurrying, scuzzy little foreigners. We then walked toward our lunch destination, which turned out to be the Manimal Smoke House, a barbecue joint that, according to John, exists in competition with Linus Barbecue—the BBQ joint started by a Korean-American with roots in the 'Bama BBQ tradition. As someone who lived through the 1980s, I recall the old, short-lived TV series "Manimal," starring the late Simon MacCorkindale—a show about a shape-shifter capable of assuming the form of any animal, who helped the police to solve crimes. Today's Manimal Smoke House had absolutely nothing in common with the TV series, but the 80s memory was always somewhere in the back of my mind.
As John and I walked along the street, John told me he had encountered a huge group of Muslims. We saw them again, massed in front of Suji's. See below:
I think John had mentioned that this might be a parade or gathering to celebrate Muhammad's birthday, but TimeandDate.com says that, in 2015, the Prophet's birthday falls on both January 3 and December 24 because Muslims use a lunar calendar. This gathering could still have plausibly been about Muhammad, but I'm not positive.
Manimal turned out not to be on the same gentrified back street as most of the Itaewon joints I now know. To get there, you have to walk toward Itaewon's edge and up a different back street. The place itself had an entrance that gave it a vaguely disreputable feel which, in marketing terms, might be a good thing or a bad thing. Look at the next two photos to see what I mean: in one photo, there's a small sign perched high above the street; in the other, you see the narrow, alley-like entry that leads to a set of battered-looking metal steps taking you up to the building's second floor, where Manimal's entrance is located. I'm trying to imagine how hellish it must have been when the restaurant was first being set up: the poor slobs who had to carry all that heavy cooking equipment (smokers and such) up those narrow stairs must have been pissed off by the end of that day.
The high sign:
The alley entrance:
John and I sat down and jawed for several minutes. We both ordered the pulled-pork platter; I also got a side of mac and cheese plus a Coke; not to be outdone, John ordered barbecue chicken, beans, and corn bread. I frowned at the fact that the platter came with something that didn't seem like Southern barbecue at all: roasted barley. As it turned out, the barley, with its rich and smoky flavor, was one of the best items in my order; I couldn't stop eating it.
The rest of the meal was quite good. The pulled pork was mild and subdued, but its consistency was absolutely perfect—the sort of thing that can only be accomplished with a real smoker as opposed to a crock pot. The grilled chicken was tender and juicy. The mac-and-cheese was creamy and recognizably American in style; the bread—both the butter roll and the cornbread that John shared with me—was excellent. At first, I had thought that maybe there wasn't enough pork on my board (no big plates at Manimal; it's boards, small plates, or little serving cups), but after having gobbled my sides and a good portion of the food that John had ordered (especially his chicken), I concluded that I'd been wrong: there was just enough pork for a big, hungry guy like me.
Click the pic below to see it larger. To see it full-size, right-click on the enlarged image, and open the image in a new tab. I'm sad that I forgot to photograph the chicken.
All in all, a marvelous lunch. My only reproaches to Manimal are (1) at W2,500, the price for a teeny, tiny can of Coke (no refills!) is way too expensive; and (2) the cost for the sides was ridiculous at W6,000-W8,000. The main meal itself, my platter, was reasonably priced at around W16,000. But such exorbitant prices for sides and drinks are common at Western-style restos in Itaewon and elsewhere in Korea; if you're an expat jonesing for Western food, you have to decide whether you're willing to bite the financial bullet. If you're not, then you'd best buy cheap ingredients and get cooking at home.
After Manimal, John and I walked down to the Haebangchon district so I could have a peek. I'd never really been in HBC before, and to be honest, we didn't go deeply into it today. That said, I had my peek and came away with the impression that HBC was a bit like Itaewon's main drag, but a decade behind in terms of its overall style and ambiance.
After our reconnoiter, we walked back uphill to Noksapyeong Station and parted ways, with me now the happy and proud owner of a DVD/Blu-ray player. I'd forgotten how much I like Noksapyeong Station's design: the vaulted, cylindrical interior with the thin escalators hanging in space like vulnerable cobwebs. It'd be a great action-movie set.
Stay tuned for a photo essay showing Saturday's shindig at Charles's place.