It took me three visits to SanMaRu Grill before I knew what I wanted to say about it. While I checked out the restaurant on the recommendation of a Korean-born dining partner who swore I'd be wowed by the flavors there, I was mostly struck by the kitchen's capacity for blandness.
After one visit, I was leaning toward not reviewing the restaurant at all. After a second visit, I started to wonder whether I could wring a story from the lengthy section of the menu devoted to bibimbap. Although I don't usually pay too much attention to bibimbap, I was impressed by the many ways SanMaRu had contorted its fixings to produce a list of more than a dozen different bibimbaps. If I'd found the region's best bibimbap - or at least the region's most elaborate bibimbap strategy - perhaps I'd stumbled on my hook.
But the bibimbap I tried didn't merit 1000 words. The rice was nicely crusted, but the dish's flavors didn't pop. Finally, on my third visit, I realized the overwhelming blandness I kept encountering was my story. I decided to write about why so many Korean restaurant owners won't serve spicy food to non-Korean customers.
Rather than just expound on what happened at SanMaRu, I sought out the opinions of writers and restaurateurs who've faced similar predicaments on their eating expeditions. Eddie Huang -- who's both a writer and restaurateur -- was quick to respond.
"I love to talk about these things," he e-mailed. "I actually get so bored talking about technique and flavors, because I've been doing it forever, but the cultural conversation around food in America is really special."
Huang is forever willing to take on tough topics, which is why he's earned a reputation as a provocateur -- and why his new memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, is so compulsively readable. Huang's frequently profane narrative doesn't pinball from one edible epiphany to the next (although his childhood deduction that a restaurant's soup dumplings were inferior because they were made with off-brand soy sauce is accorded due importance): His starry-eyed descriptions of transformative dishes are outnumbered by passages devoted to sneaker lust, hip-hop lyrics and petty crime.
By the book's end, Huang's made good at Baohaus, his Lower East Side bun counter, but he's still happily hanging out on society's fringes, passing weed around his restaurant. "As customers started walking in, we just told them, "We blazing so you can either get down or get it to go'," he writes of a spontaneous 2010 party.
Huang likes to smoke. And he has a stoner's way of phrasing his wonderment, fixating on ordinary details which don't initially seem very important. But as his food-related observations pile up, it becomes apparent how few eaters are articulating how little Chinese boys feel when served macaroni-and-cheese for the first time, or what the Food Network means to new Americans. Huang -- who's scheduled to speak with Blue Scholars' Geo at Town Hall on Feb. 5, and has a Reddit AMA at 10:30 a.m. -- doesn't shy away from probing why white people don't like eating at a steakhouse run by a Chinese immigrant, but flock to Asian restaurants run by white people.
"My entire life, the single most interesting thing to me is race in America," Huang writes. "How something so stupid as skin or eyes or stinky Chinese lunch has such an impact on a person's identity, their mental state, and the possibility of their happiness. It was race. It was race. It was race."
Huang's right: Even in a restaurant, race matters a million times more than the texture of dolsot bibimpbap.
For more on chili paste, capitalism, hospitality and Huang's opinions, check out my story here. And we're incredibly excited this week to welcome back the very talented Joshua Huston: A slideshow of his images from SanMaRu will post here shortly.