Seoulmate Serves Pork Stew for the Seoul
You're a few blocks from Cal State Long Beach on Seventh Street and directly across from Woodrow Wilson High. For a moment, you consider parking somewhere at the school because Seoulmate—the Korean burrito joint where you're about to eat lunch—is nothing but a walk-up window under a pink A-frame roof, and it doesn't have parking. There's a 30-minute loading zone, but that's it. You decide, however, to leave your car at the Starbucks lot around the corner because it's so cold that you could use a hot beverage from there afterward. But as you walk, the storm clouds above you get more ominous. It has poured all morning, and you were hoping the current respite from the rain would last at least through your lunch. And you're concerned because dining at Seoulmate means eating al fresco in its small courtyard.
You stroll up to the window. Owner Jason Kang, a lean twenty-ish gent with a goatee and baseball cap, asks if you're eating there. You answer affirmatively, and he responds, "Which table would you like?" You point to the only one with an umbrella. "Let me wipe it down for you and turn on the heater," he says as he skips out from a side door with a towel.
In the meantime, you mull over your choices: eight dishes and two desserts on a menu nailed to the side of the building. When he returns behind the register, you ask Kang how big the bibimbap is. He looks over at his chef, Michael Martinez, who pauses from sautéing onions on a flattop griddle to show the aluminum to-go container it's served in. "I can't finish it," Martinez adds. Since Martinez is a grizzly bear of a man, and you already asked for a bulgogi burrito and the kimchi pork stew, you put in the order—but for later, as takeout.
Seoulmate, 4712 E. Seventh St., Long Beach, (562) 433-1158; www.seoulmateLBC.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Meal for two, $15-$30. No alcohol.
The next downpour starts when you're huddled under the umbrella. You hear the rain hitting the fabric above you: rap-tap-tap. Though you barely feel its warmth, the heater begins to hiss as it vaporizes the droplets on contact. But you're immune from hypothermia because now you have the stew. As you take your first sip from the Styrofoam container, you realize there's no food more perfect, more suited for frigid, wet weather than this—Seoulmate's signature dish. It's a recipe that Kang simply calls "Mom's kimchi pork stew." You hunch over it as you eat, your face warmed by its vapors, your soul invigorated by the smell of garlic. In this lava-red broth float cubes of tofu, strips of pork belly and seemingly never-ending layers of kimchi. You moisten a mound of rice with it, the whole thing emitting curls of steam that shroud your entire head. And then, as the spice builds up in your mouth, you actually begin to sweat, frigidity be damned.
When you start on the foil-wrapped bulgogi burrito, you only need a quarter of it; it's a behemoth, filled with a cilantro-and-lime-infused rice that's its best feature. Most important, it's perhaps the first Korean-Mexican burrito in this post-Kogi world that feels unforced. When you eat it, you're not thinking about how there's kimchi instead of pico de gallo, sesame-oil-scented bulgogi instead of carne asada; you're thinking about how good a burrito it is, one that has somehow managed to transcend its fusion-y novelty. There are two other burritos, one with spicy pork instead of bulgogi, and the Running Man, named after the popular Korean reality series with which Kang is currently obsessed, an omelet-and-kimchi-filled tortilla pillow that contains melted cheese and plain white rice instead of that ambrosial cilantro-and-lime concoction he should use on everything.
With your face warmed to a rosy pink and beads of perspiration accumulating on your brow, you go to the window to pick up the order of bibimbap. You add a good-looking spicy-pork combo plate to it and a few more chocolate chip cookies to the one that Kang included for free. He has even added a poem apologizing for the bad parking: "So many places to eat & so little time; we're so happy, you're making us rhyme; & our parking isn't the best; so a cookie for you, our guest."
Later for dinner, you eat the tender red flaps of spicy pork with its salad and rice, and then heat up the bibimbap, mixing in the brick-red pepper and sesame paste. Martinez was right: though it contains no meat—just veggies and a sunny-side-up egg—it's more food than one person can eat alone. But it's in the safety and warmth of your home that you now remember with fondness the experience of eating that stew in the rain, as well as how you forgot to step into that Starbucks.
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