Tuesday, April 23, 2013

meeting ZenKimchi's Joe McPherson

With sincere apologies to Yann Martel for what follows...

This evening, I met Joe McPherson of the famous ZenKimchi blog. This was, of course, something of a brush-with-fame moment for me, since meeting Joe McPherson meant that I would be only two degrees of separation from "Bizarre Foods" host Andrew Zimmern (with whom Joe has worked), and thus three degrees of separation from Anthony Bourdain. I had no idea what Joe was going to be like, so I admit I was nervous. I took Joe's surname, "mack-FEAR-son," to be a bad omen: the prefix "Mc" means "son of," as does the suffix "-son." So: son of son of Fear, i.e., the Grandson of Fear. I felt as if I had arranged to meet Lord Voldemort. Or Satan.

Joe arrived wearing a rather distracting outfit that consisted of little more than zippered headgear, leather straps, nipple sparklers, and a studded thong-cum-codpiece that had been slit down the middle to allow a massive third testicle to hang freely. Joe seemed completely unaware of the looks he was getting from the Koreans around him; he had obviously become inured to the effects of his self-expression. Joe beckoned me into our chosen restaurant, Vatos Urban Tacos in Itaewon.

Vatos was both crowded and warm. The young lady standing at the host's podium stopped what she was doing and stared openly at Joe when we stepped inside, doubtless intrigued by all those straps and that one dangling gonad. With subtle lust, she ran a perfectly smooth, pink tongue across her lips, snapped out of her ball-induced fugue, and showed us to a table. The decibel level of the ambient human noise went down by half as Joe and I made our way to a square two-top. Joe's nipples flared, showering the tableware with sparks, as he expressed his delight at finally meeting me. Still dumbstruck, I merely nodded. We turned to the Vatos menu, which represented an impressive gamut of both traditional and fusion Tex-Mex items. Having seen a Vatos-related YouTube video, I knew that I wanted to try the kimchi carnitas French fries and the galbi tacos. Joe, staring at his menu with murderous intensity, ordered a quesadilla that he hoped would be packed with anus-withering bul-dak, i.e., "fire chicken," one of the spiciest forms of chicken in Korea.

The other diners had stopped staring at Joe; Vatos was loud again. Conversation was, as a result, a volley of back-and-forth shouting between him and me. Joe's voice alternated between a grating, demonic parrot's squawk and a basso, subterranean boom that shook the restaurant's brick walls. His reverberating laughter at my little jokes frightened the male customers and caused some of the women to lactate uncontrollably. At least one baby, sitting in a high chair, exploded into bloody spray at the sound of Joe's harsh, barking mirth.

Joe proved remarkably knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects. I already knew he was a foodie, so it didn't surprise me when he launched into a passionate disquisition on Japanese food done well or poorly. I was, however, impressed when he spent twenty minutes shouting at the top of his lungs about the judicious use of the humble kitchen fork as an aid in clitoral stimulation. I came away from that lecture armed with about twenty or twenty-five new techniques that I'm now eager to try on someone. Joe's political views, as it happens, are all over the place: he's done both the ashram thing and the mountain-survivalist thing, so he confessed, with some embarrassment, that he's got a garage piled high with sandalwood incense and helicopter miniguns. When I asked him how he'd voted in the most recent election, he crossed his eyes and belched out an unearthly, sonorous vowel I had never heard before. That was his only answer.

Watching Joe McPherson eat a Vatos quesadilla is a bit like watching a Kodiak bear rape a goat. There was a great deal of flying blood, mucus, and semen. There were shouts of terror and glee. The slices of quesadilla seemed to be actively struggling in Joe's mighty, merciless grip. The table became scored with the weird hieroglyphs of Joe's prandial exaltation. With every horrifying bite, his nipples vomited gouts of fire and lightning. By the time Joe was done with his quesadilla, his immaculately manicured fingernails had become ripped and bloody, and torn flaps of skin hung from his forearms, cheeks, and scalp. Joe stared across the table at me with red-rimmed, battle-frenzied eyes, his chest heaving in the aftermath of that awe-inspiring orgy of consumption. Steam rose from his head. For a moment, I was convinced that the quesadilla wasn't enough and that he aimed to eat my brain, zombie-style. But after a few minutes, Joe's ardor faded and, becalmed, he resumed his shouted conversation with me, now turning to the delicate topic of neo-Confucian cosmology and its application to African-American rights issues. He has been touched by God, I thought.

We parted amicably enough. Joe's massive hand slammed my shoulder several times in fraternal affection. We promised to do this again at some point soon, and then Joe, true to his larger-than-life persona, gave a high, trilling whistle. His call summoned a gigantic, glistening, tentacled beast, a molluscan horror that looked as if it had crawled straight out of a Lovecraftian abyss. Completely unaffected by the barrels of alcohol he had consumed in Vatos, Joe leaped nimbly onto his fell destrier's back. The beast grunted, rolled its bloodshot eyes, then farted once, heaving itself skyward—and just like that, Joe McPherson was gone in a rocketing cloud of methane.

...Or perhaps you do not believe the above story could have happened. Perhaps I should tell you another story...

I met Joe McPherson at 7PM at Vatos Urban Tacos yesterday (Monday, Seoul time). Finding Vatos was a bitch because the website doesn't really offer a clear location on its Google map. The location I did find, based on information from the Vatos website, was Vatos's old location in a back alley. The restaurant, which has received stellar reviews from the likes of Joe and other prominent foodies, had relocated to a much better, more visible spot near the entrance to Itaewon on the Noksapyeong side of the district. In preparation for the meeting, I had watched some YouTube videos about Vatos—its construction, its culinary philosophy, etc. (See here, for example.)

Joe texted to ask whether I knew how to find the place. I had just been talking with my buddy Tom on the phone, and Tom gamely guided me out of the back alley and onto the main street, where I looked up and saw Vatos's new location, just up a short, steep hill. I thanked Tom, then texted Joe that I had found the place; he replied by saying he was "the lonely guy at the bar." Joe's not really lonely, of course: it turns out he's married and has a two-year-old daughter. Joe expressed his delight at finally meeting me, claiming that he saw me as a "celebrity." I'm nothing of the sort, being the owner of a rinky-dink blog read by three people, getting only 150 unique visits per day (a severe drop from the 350 daily unique visits I used to get before 2008).

Joe, as it happened, was a relaxed, cheerful fellow wearing an artisan wristband and neckband, and Vatos was probably a good choice because Joe felt at home there, loved the food, and knew the staff and owners. The Vatos staff turned out to be almost all gyopo (i.e., Koreans who have grown up, or lived a long time, outside of Korea), so almost everyone who served us spoke English with no discernible Korean accent. The place was crowded and warm, but not oppressively so, and the ambiance was lively. Vatos is a bar/restaurant, so Joe and I began our dinner at the bar before moving to a table. I was impressed by how watchful the serving staff was; the various servers all seemed to be in communication with each other, knowing whether we had ordered anything other than drinks (margarita for Joe, Coke for yours truly), and keeping real-time updates on how we were progressing through our dinner.

Our appetizer was the much-ballyhooed carnitas kimchi fries, and my main course was a "threefer" plate of galbi (Korean short ribs) tacos. Joe ordered a fire-chicken quesadilla. We slaughtered the fries first, then each shared one element from the other's main course: Joe took a galbi taco and I took a slice of quesadilla. The food was great, but if I have one complaint, it's just that there wasn't enough of it for the price we paid. This isn't really a dig against Vatos: Western food in Korea is generally much more expensive than Korean food, as is only natural: the reverse is true in the States, where a humble bowl of bibimbap, no more than $3-$5 in Seoul, can set you back $8-$12.

My only basis of comparison for Korean taco-truck fare is my awful experience with "Korean" tacos at TGI Friday's out in Appalachia. There, the meat was flavorless, and the taco shells couldn't withstand the soaking they received from the meat juices. Not only that, but those shells tasted like drenched cardboard. Armed, now, with a clear idea of what I didn't want to see in a Korean taco, I bit into the Vatos galbi taco and was rewarded with all the flavor that had been missing from the TGI Friday's version. The tender shells held up well against the meat juices, and the vegetable toppings were assertive enough to make their own statement in contrast with the meat. Fantastic. Too bad I ate only two; I could have eaten ten.

Joe, ever the foodie, regaled me with his extensive knowledge of different sorts of food, focusing at one point on Japanese cuisine as it's done in Korea. He named a few restaurants that were way, way out of my price range, but it was interesting to listen to him and fantasize about eating their offerings. Joe also talked a bit about his experience with Andrew Zimmern and other media figures; he groused about the food reviewers who demand free food to review; he talked about expat life in Korea, and how wonderful it is that expats of different political persuasions can discover that, despite their differences, they have so much in common.

Not long after we sat down at our two-top, Vatos co-owner Kenny sauntered over and engaged Joe in lengthy conversation. Joe and Kenny obviously knew each other well, and Kenny was kind enough to include me in the exchange. He told one funny anecdote about a Japanese chef (I'm unsure whether the chef was Japanese or whether he was a Korean chef who prepared Japanese food) who had seemingly lost his passion for making Japanese cuisine, and had attempted to serve Kenny and his date a rather limp platter of goods. Kenny complained about this, citing his own extensive experience with eating high-class, traditional Japanese cuisine, and this seemed to light a fire in the old chef's heart, because he then brought out an amazing array of "real" Japanese food for his guests. Later on, Kenny came back and presented Joe with a special dessert concoction—something alcoholic made with a red berry syrup that, in the taxonomy of drinks and desserts, sat somewhere in the neighborhood of a daiquiri, a margarita, and an ice-cream float. I, meanwhile, couldn't resist ordering the Nutella nachos for dessert, and they proved fantastic: puffy chips drizzled with melted Nutella and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. How awesome is that?

Joe told me he was using me as an excuse to have a good time that evening, so he downed his margaritas and spoke with loud ebullience. I don't think I held up my end of the conversation that well: jet lag had me fading away. That's a bad combination, having a full stomach and already being tired. So at around 8:30PM, we finished dinner, strolled out to Itaewon Station, and went our separate ways. Before we parted, we promised to meet up again. I think I may have made a new friend in Korea.

Joe's ZenKimchi website, which is much more than just its blog, represents Joe himself—his cheerful optimism, his can-do spirit, his writerly talents, and his wide-ranging culinary knowledge. Last night proved to be an interesting brush with fame; Mr. McPherson is definitely a man who makes and works with ideas. Joe mused, at one point, about what it'd be like to get a few of us old-school Koreabloggers together for dinner. I replied that we'd better bring an omnidirectional mike to record that conversation. Joe's eyes lit up and an impish smile dawned on his face.

I ask you now: which of these stories do you choose as the real one, the truer one? Are "real" and "true" the same? Make your choice... and so it goes with God.



pitchfest said...

Cool, you met Joe. He's great.

There's no question of which story went down, although I do wonder about the vowel he emitted in response to the voting question. A high-pitched "eeeee" perhaps?

It would be cool to meet up, despite our newborn arrival. But you must drink. I have a strong aversion to sobriety.

Kevin Kim said...

The vowel was ineffable. I can never repeat it.

Alas, Lee, I don't drink, so you'll just have to deal with my remaining earthbound while everyone else is a-floating around on beer bubbles.

Elisson said...

I seethe with envy... and I enjoyed both accounts. The first one perhaps more, since it bears the unduplicatable Kevin Kim touch.