Tag Archives: soju

Just Like It Sounds

24 Jan

“Who’s hungry?”

The consensus was everyone, pretty much.  We’d finished a game of bowling at Lotte World, which is an indoor amusement park/Babes in Toyland nightmare combined with the behemoth of Korean department stores.  Ice skating had been our original plan but, in suggesting that activity, I hadn’t considered that half of Seoul would be trying to ice skate on a Sunday afternoon. Everyone was moving at a snail’s pace around the ice and it looked about as fun as standing on a crowded bus in rush hour traffic.  So we’d bowled.  But it was only 5:30.  No reason to go all the way home without getting some food first.

“I know a good place,” said Adam.  “It’s a soju tent.”

“A soju tent?  What’s that?”  The Koreans we were with didn’t even know what he meant.

“It’s just like it sounds.  Trust me on this one.”  So we did.  We followed him out a subway exit at Jamsil and literally, right there to the right of the top steps, is a tent.  It’s of the big metal pole frame variety, the sort you’d use for weddings.  But this was wrapped in clear plastic sheeting, like some sort of ghastly improvised triage/surgical ward.  We ducked in the entrance hallway.   This thing was huge; there were four restaurants (or at least eating/drinking establishments) in separate parts of the tent.  Each was walled off with more plastic sheeting.   There was a flap with the word mun (meaning door) marked out in masking tape.

Inside were rickety old school desks.  Not nice reclining ones like the in States.  These were basic and tiny and flat.  “These are the old desks we used to use,” said Seulgi and Jihyun.  Each had an institutional-sized metal tray on top and half-dozen blue and red plastic stools which we precariously perched on.  We ordered soju and beer and makkeolli to start off with.  Soon we added dakgalbi (chicken sort of fried up in a pan with loads of red pepper paste) and jeon (like a massive potato/leek/meat pancake) to the mix.  Space heaters overhead kept the place fairly warm.  There wasn’t much incentive to move: heat, friends to talk with, and just about the cheapest booze and food I’ve found at any sit-down establishment in Seoul.

This went on for hours.  More and more beer, more and more makkeolli.  We learned inane Korean drinking games and occasionally expressed our baffled opinions about this place.  What in the world was this tent doing here?  And it was popular too.  Table tops were at a premium.  Soon you were bumping into your adjacent diners whenever you moved.

I stepped out through the back to locate the hwajangshil or toilet.  I realized that this tent was set up in some sort of tire store parking lot that seemed to be half walled-off with construction barriers.  I found a bunch of Korean men urinating against a wall.  Well, I guess that’s what they do here.

Here I was, drinking cheap liquor in a rickety tent, filled with hikers, businessmen, and hot Korean girls in trendy outfits, in the back of a dirty parking lot, relieving myself into some sort of trough which almost certainly drained straight into a public waterway.  And when I looked up, all about me were big shiny, glass and steel office high-rises, replete with giant glowing corporate signs, along with Lotte World, that enormous, slick beast of a shopping center, squatting like an awkward troll off to the left.  The slick and modern right next door to the ramshackle and dirty.  Perhaps the most visible, visceral example of this nation of contrasts I’ve ever seen.