These are scary times. Heavy times. Every morning finds me pajama clad at the kitchen table, nursing a fresh cup of French press, listening to NPR on our made-in-China radio wondering, “was it always this bad and I just wasn’t old enough to know it or is this a fresh kind of terrible?” Listening to my egg sizzle in the skillet over the sounds of FM horror, all tinny and crispy through cheap speakers. The ticking of the toaster oven steady and insistent, flat grey coils buzzing faintly, rising to a glow, shining fiery red. I used to hear stories from my grandparents about the Cold War. Shake my head in wonder at the thought of living always on the edge of my seat, watching hands in restaurants, shrinking away from shadows passing overhead. Life under siege. It was sad the way history is always sad, which is to say, distantly. Inaccessibly.
Then people started shooting up schools and movie theaters. North Korea went all Caligula crazy. Riots in the streets and a presidential race that’s just a game of Russian Roulette with a semi automatic and before you know it the coils are hot and everything is burnt toast.
I don’t know how my grandparents got through their uncertain times, although, if I’m to believe what I see on Madmen and in the washed out photos scattered around my parents house, the answer probably came in a tumbler and smelled a lot like whiskey.
(Photo credit: http://i.huffpost.com)
It’s 2016 now, though. Taking my pants off at a baby shower because I “got the tequila sweats” doesn’t make me “quirky” these days. Crashing a Pontiac into a mailbox and tumbling out stinking of rum and fear isn’t just another Tuesday evening anymore. You’ll catch a charge for that shit now. End up in a program. So where, in this age of global instability and social responsibility are we to find any solace? I’ve been picking mine up at place called Cho Dang Tofu Restaurant.
First, if you’re fingerjamming this place into your Yelp machine, you’ll see that there are a couple of different Cho Dang Tofu Restaurants in the area. Im told they’re both owned and operated by the same people and , if their Yelp reviews are to be believed, they’re equally awesome, but my experience is limited to the one in Federal Way, so that’s the one I’ll be talking about.
Krishan, my proverbial food guide and area expert, introduced me to the place at the midway point of a frustrating day. We’d just pulled one of those stops that was sideways before it even left the runway. Kid had a handful of unnecessary bullshit Tetris’d into a plastic hand basket and we had sandwiched him between us at the door.
“Put the shit down, man” I’d said, and I watched his eyes go wide and his pupils sphincter shut. He took a step forward and Krishan got two handfuls of his jacket, gave him a little tug back. Kid looked over his shoulder to see if the guy behind him looked as punchable as the guy in front of him and I saw that head turning, artery in the side of his neck working overtime, chugging adrenaline, spitting it into the rest of him. The compressed zip file version of it, is that we hip tossed the kid. He did a wicked sweet barrel roll and dropped all the shit he had in his basket, then he got up and waded through a bush that he was otherwise unaware of thanks to his tunnel vision, then he reached into his pocket and said, “I got the strap.” Which is a douchey way of telling someone that you have a gun.
He didn’t have the strap. He had a raspberry on his elbow. He had two guys in front of him who’d just tossed him like a pony keg, and a pound and a half of uh-oh in his shorts. But he definitely didn’t have the strap. His hand wiggled about ineffectually in his empty pocket, a silent prayer that we were buying this bullshit swimming in desperation in his eyes. It was over, though. He turned and broke like a wild pony and we collected the stolen things from the lot, carried them back into the store.
Moments like those are funny for the first few minutes, while the adrenaline is still arc flashing off you.
“I got the strap! I got the strap! Hahaha.”
“Haha did you tell that kid to ‘come catch this fade’?”
But when it’s fizzled out and the paperwork is done, the novelty has started to wear off and you’re just left with the bones of it, which is that you’re just two guys doing a kind of shitty job in a kind of shitty world where shitty things happen all the time.
“What an asshole.”
What if he’d had a gun?”
“Wanna get some lunch?”
So, with our hackles up and a brand new Instagram filter called pessimism over our lives, we shuffled through the doors of Cho Dangs’s… And totally redeemed ourselves
Dark wood on the walls between the framed photos of kimchi pots in various stages of the fermentation process. Food sizzling in stone bowls putting off that crickets in the deep woods feel as the staff waded through miasma of good food and happy people. So much for no safe places.
Krishan and I took up a table in the corner and flipped some menus open. I snapped up some magical words like somebody’d highlighted them for me and shut the menu immediately, because I knew what I wanted.
Krishan and I opted for one of the combo meals, which included a bunch of traditional Korean sides, (one of which was a mean looking fried fish, which is crispy and delicious as long as you don’t bite the head
off it like there aren’t any bones in there.)
The rest of the sides were interesting and tangy and pretty foreign to my domesticated tastebuds, which made them all the more tantalizing. We fired them down with a fervor while we waited for the main course to come out, our troubles already sloughing off in the thralls of such exciting new goodness. The Kalbi beef hit the table, hissing like a lit fuse in the hotpot and we ate that caramelly meat off the bone grinning like idiots while that fuse sizzled down to the real boom-boom. A fat bowl of bibimbap.
Bibimbap literally means “mixed rice” and it’s been a mainstay of Korean cooking since the late 1300s to early 1600s. It’s one of those meals with deep roots that just makes sense, like stew or barbecue. You’ve got a lot of people to feed. You’ve got some rice and some vegetables and meat. Throw all that business in a pot, hit it with some gochujang and boom: Dinner.
It’s been tweaked slightly since the time of its conception, and one of the more welcome additions has come in the form of a hot stone bowl, which crisps the rice along the bottom and throws a whole different texture into the mix. It’s heaven. Sweet salty heaven in a hot stone bowl.
The waitress brought ours out and offered us the obligatory warning about not touching the sizzling hot pan, which I quietly mocked the obviousness of, and then immediately did on accident. Barely felt it though… because I was in the zone. I was cramming mouthful after mouthful of perfectly seasoned food into my previously worried face and watching the sharp edges shave off of the world around me. Fuck the election, and the crazy dictators. Fuck a kid with a gun and a nuclear winter. I’ve got beef and mushrooms. I’ve got rice and a stone bowl. I’ve got hot, crispy, solace.