Unpredictability #1: “Are you opened today?”
Before you set your GPS to Myung Dong in Houston, make sure you call and ask that question in the clearest, simplest way possible. Aaron tried different versions, most were a bit too elaborately polite with a perfect American accent, and only succeeded in confusing the poor old man. I tried it once and got the answer “Yes, open.” We hopped en route.
(If you don’t call, there’s a slim chance that your schedule will coincide with the owner couple’s schedule, which depends on the lady’s health, and she’s the only chef. That slim chance didn’t happen for me the first time I set out for Myung Dong.) The limited English conversation is nothing uncommon at Korean and Vietnamese mom-and-pop diners, but I have to mention it because it’s one of those things that make me classify Myung Dong as more “authentic” than the other Korean restaurants in Houston. The second thing is that its name doesn’t contain “Seoul” or “Korean”, they go more local: Myungdong (명동) is a part of Seoul (in Vietnam, its equivalent would be a phường). The third thing is that its name contains its specialty: kalguksu (칼국수). In fact, that’s the only part of the name still visible on the sign, the Myungdong part has faded completely, which explains why we couldn’t find it the first time (aside from the other fact that we couldn’t read Korean at the time)*.
Of course we ordered it. It was the first kalguksu I’ve ever had. It’s a handmade, knife-cut noodle in soup, and this version has only noodle, broth, and vegetables. The broth was sweet and deep, the noodles were wonderfully chewy. But kalguksu is like fireworks, the first two minutes are great, then you ask yourself “just when is it gonna end?”. Now that I’ve had kalguksu, unless I get a two-minute-size bowl, I doubt I will gather enough curiosity for a second kalguksu in my life**.
But kalguksu was still a memorable thing. In my Commis post I went off on the memorability of meals, and here I go again. Myungdong has something worth remembering: the portion (Unpredictability #2). Aaron and I each ordered a dish, him the kimchi duaeji bokkeum (김치 돼지 볶음, stir-fried pork with kimchi) and me the kalguksu, and we decided to share a pajeon (it was a really good pajeon too, thick, crispy, airy, and chewy, oh, and not oily). The usual banchans came. We were both starving like baby goats. Then the big stuff came, covering the whole table. A diligent hour later, in Aaron’s words, “it looks like we hadn’t eaten anything at all”. We looked at the old man with hopeful eyes, for boxes. Many boxes. Also in Aaron’s words, “he’s quietly laughing at us: gotcha, foreigners, didn’t know what you were getting into, did you”. He did laugh with us, a very congenial laugh of old men, as he poured the goods into the containers and loaded the containers into a cardboard box. Aaron had enough food for the next week. And Aaron is no timid diner.
(*) It’s a neon green one-story house with no door sign. Very noticeable. If in doubt, ask the people in the same parking lot, they’ll confirm “The Chinese restaurant? Yes, that’s it there!”
(**) This is why I didn’t get kalguksu at To Hyang, although it’s one of their recommended’s. In a few ways, such as the homemade kimchis on the table, Myung Dong is similar to To Hyang. When my Korean is better, I’ll ask them if they grow herbs in the back too.