[ITAEWON WANDERINGS]At last, a sense of humus

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[ITAEWON WANDERINGS]At last, a sense of humus

Itaewon's nightlife areas can be spooky in the daytime, just like that dodgy girl you've been dating for a couple weeks but haven't yet seen in a bright light. It seems a good idea to meet her in a dark bar, as long as you get the spirits flowing right away; you fear seeing her in the light of day, gaudy makeup, varicose veins and all.

That's a shame -- in Itaewon's case -- because its most interesting neighborhood and the best and cheapest places to get lunch are up beyond the seedy nightlife area, on the back hem of the big mosque.

To get up there you'll need to brave a walk up alleys lined with dormant bars, passing through thick pockets of ethnicity: Nigerians milling outside cell phone shops or hip-hop stores, stoic Russian girls in ungodly tight clothes strolling with their Korean Sugar Daddies, bearded Muslims in their flowing white robes bound for their prostrations.

A good place to get lunch there is a Pakistani/Indian joint just steps beyond the mosque, the Muslim Restaurant. It had been a dingy but friendly place run by a couple of Bangladeshis. But about a year ago a Pakistani took it over, gutted it and transformed it into a light, airy space that serves the best mutton biryani this side of the Himalayas. The genial waiter there, Mohsin from Bombay, will talk you through the menu and tell you how great cricket is, asking why local newspapers can't give it more coverage.

Maybe better, and more exotic, is a Turkish restaurant on the mosque's east wall, Salam. This place, run by the partners Salih and Ali, scores big on atmosphere, with Middle Eastern furnishings and music and those narghiles, or candelabra-size water pipes, on every other table. Specialties here are the kebabs and the Turkish coffee; vegetarians can opt for the pita and humus. Salih and Ali will gladly set you up with a narghile, recommending either apple or cappuccino flavor smoke, and give you a demonstration to get you started. Cough and lose all dignity. For 10,000 won ($8) you can puff away for an hour.

But hold on a second, Mr. Cultural Sensitivity. Today is the first day of Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to celebrate heaven's delivery of the Koran to earth. Won't that make it impossible to get lunch at Itaewon's exotic restaurants, and force us to resort to Whoppers or bibimbap?

Actually, most of the Pakistani and Middle Eastern eateries will keep their normal hours. So at lunch we non-Muslims will have these places to ourselves.

One restaurant will follow the Ramadan rules: Taqwa, a small Pakistani joint just behind Burger King that serves a good chicken marsala. Taqwa just put a sign up saying it will be open from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. during Ramadan. The manager expects the faithful to come in predawn to fill up before the mealless day ahead. But if he's not careful, word will get out among the heathen revelers that there's a great new place to get late eats.

But that would anger another great late-night food purveyor, that lady selling egg sandwiches off her little cart.

By the way, has anybody ever seen her in the daytime?

"Itaewon Wanderings" appears Tuesdays in the JoongAng Daily.

by Mike Ferrin

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