Fear. Anger. Hunger. They all sit, Gollum-like, in the pit of your stomach, clawing at the sides and hissing bile. Wretched, debilitating and nauseating, each selfishly demands the resolute attention of your senses, cells and synapses. Combine the three and you’re basically a hyena. And they all make you do stupid, regrettable things. Like punching someone, or eating a whole box of uncooked dry spaghetti, or weeping quietly and uncontrollably on the bus. In fairness, the dastardly trio can also inspire greatness in their victims: resourcefulness, momentum and mettle.
On a Friday night in Sydney, resourcefulness fuels our decision to eat somewhere we’ve never eaten, to venture to a foreign spot armed only with the recommendation of a trusted friend who’s driven past when it heaved with diners. Fear is standing on the side of a busy road in Canterbury, at the closed door to a sickly looking Korean BBQ restaurant; grey-white lace curtains covering the greasy windows to disguise the messed up innards of the place. Momentum forces us in, the dirty red door opening in to a dimly lit dining room, crowded with empty chairs and haunted by the clingy ghost of smoke. The charcoal BBQs in the name are old oil drums, painted fire engine red and topped with stainless steel; small square breathing holes are cut at floor level and the straight-backed wooden chairs have been corralled around each drum in groups of four and six. Anger takes the form of an older Korean woman we assume owns/runs/chefs/dictates the joint. She approaches with a steely stare. A table for two? We ask, overcompensating with high-pitched friendliness. She stares, looks lazily around the desolate room, then jerks her head in the direction of a table by the wood-paneled wall. Great! Thank you! We chirp. She walks away, leaving us to laugh nervously as we settle our bags on the floor and self-consciously attempt to look comfortable. She shuffles back, wipes our table down and tosses slimy, single-page menus in front of us before walking away. We decide on o-jing a (chili marinated squid, $15), dak-bulgogi (marinated chicken, $15), beef galbi (marinated beef rib, $20) and two cans of Sprite ($3 each). Hunger sees us considering cold noodle ($9). It’s a Korean dish, she deadpans when we try to add to our order. Yes! We reply enthusiastically, we’ll have the cold noodle! It’s cold. She stares. It’s very. Cold. Noodle. It’s Korean. She’s talking slowly now, whincing with frustration at our obstinacy. Mettle replies. Yes. We want. To try. The COLD. NOODLE. Please. Thank you! She takes note and walks away. Our charcoal is delivered by a similarly steely older man; he drops the bowl, sets the fire and throws the wire rack on top. Kimchi, a basic pub salad, simmering egg soup, sauces and sides are delivered with our raw meat and little fanfare. We grill and burn the meat, singe our arm hairs and flush red over the jumping flames. The chicken and beef are good: fresh and sweet, sloppy with a garlicky marinade that lingers along with the smoke of the grill. The calamari is squeaky, bland and disappointing, slipping through the bars and into the embers as though aware of its shortcomings. And it’s the cold noodle that wins. A neat swirl of noodles emerges from a murky pool of cold soup, topped with slices of fresh cucumber, bamboo shoots and a cold boiled egg. The soup is a mild, refreshing nectar, the noodles fine and light; smug, we drain the bowl. As we pay the disapproving woman, the stern old man climbs slowly onto a chair and switches off the overworked extractor fan. Fear conquered and hunger satiated, we leave before anyone gets punched in the face.