&#91ITAEWON WANDERINGS&#93Fearful eaters stay home

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&#91ITAEWON WANDERINGS&#93Fearful eaters stay home

There's a nice new Thai restaurant in town, but I'm about the only person I know who's been to it. Maybe that's because you have to buck up your courage to get to it.

The eatery, Bangkok, opened last month on the third floor of one of the dodgiest buildings in Itaewon, the one that for years and years has housed on its second floor the rowdy bar Heavy Metal. That bar changed its name a few years back to Bald Eagle. But the people who go there still call it Heavy Metal, and it still blares Megadeth, Queens-ryche and the like from refrigerator-sized speakers every night from about 7 onward.

The scariest thing about the building, which is at the midpoint of the notorious hill and steps from 7-Eleven, is the stairwell. Espying the stairway to Heavy Metal has never been for the faint of heart. The steps are usually littered with broken glass, half-digested cheese ramen and a bunch of trash. In fact, it's customary for a Heavy Metal goer to carry a bottle of beer into the stairwell, drink as much of it as he can as he ascends, then smash the bottle outside Heavy Metal before he enters. He should also have a black felt pen handy so that he can add to the graffiti on the walls, which advertises whose mothers are looking for new lovers.

Actually, up in the restaurant, which is quite clean and tastefully decorated, the music blasting from downstairs isn't so noticeable. But you do feel the bass lines thumping. While the restaurant plays its own music -- soft, lilting Thai sounds -- the rhythms seem off when they blend with the incessant pounding emanating from Heavy Metal.

The big question: If you survive the peril of the stairwell and aren't bothered by the muffled Metallica, how's Bangkok's food?

I ate there last weekend, and liked it. But then I like tteokbeokk-i, even when I'm sober. The four other people in my party -- an American, a Pole, a Han Chinese and a Korean -- weren't too impressed. The representative gourmet in our group was the American guy (go figure!). He griped through the whole meal, from the egg rolls to the pad thai. The Polish guy and the Chinese girl, university students here, were both trying Thai for the first time. Tellingly, not a single "wow" or "nyum" escaped their lips. The Korean smiled politely, but ate without gusto.

So while Bangkok is the real deal -- that is, it offers a full menu of authentic Thai fare -- it still has some glitches in the "food" category. Other than that, though, it's really good. It has a very pleasant atmosphere, if you can block out the memory of the stairwell and the bass coming up through the floor. I enjoyed looking at the art on the walls -- ornate wooden faux window frames, delicate Thai paintings -- while waiting forever for our food to arrive.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not giving up on Bangkok yet. It's run by a brother-sister team of Korean-Germans, who seem to know what they're doing, and the chefs are from Thailand. Actually, the owners have cleaned up the stairwell, and keep a surveillance camera on it. Maybe, once they're confident that the stairs are secure, they can start concentrating on the food.

by Mike Ferrin
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