Spam, franks and other presidential ingredientsWhat do you serve a visiting president in Korea? If the president in question is himself Korean, the answer could be any number of local delicacies. If, on the other hand, you were a U.S. 8th Army chef serving President Lyndon B. Johnson on his 1965 visit, the problem was more of a stumper.
The solution arrived at, so it’s said, was a fusion of a classic Korean War-era specialty with a distinctly American ingredient, resulting in a new dish: “Johnson tang” (“tang,” of course, meaning soup). Presumably, it met with presidential approval, because some years later it was renamed “Carter tang” after it was served to ― you guessed it ― President Jimmy Carter when he visited in 1979.
Where do you go to find this specialty today? There are a few places that serve it, but one that has made it its own ― don’t ask me why ― is Itaewon’s Bada Sikdang. (And also don’t ask me why it is called “Sea Restaurant” when it serves nothing remotely resembling seafood.)
This eatery is almost spectacularly nondescript. An ugly concrete building with a small sign, next to a dry cleaner in an alleyway so narrow that Dolly Parton could not turn sideways in it, the exterior promises little.
Neither, once inside, does the interior. Walls are a tasteful shade of mucous green. It is a converted back-street residence; the main dining area is what would have been the front room, while more private quarters are in the back. All seating is on the floor.
Through a serving hatch, a couple of old trouts are visible, toiling away over huge pots like the witches in Macbeth. The serving ajumma has a GI-style haircut (short, spiky, scary), but, on this visit, was not as shrilly rude as she has been on previous occasions. (Word has it that even ambassadors get short shrift here, but I once watched a table full of off-duty cops receive very deferential service.)
Menu is ― how can I put this? ― a combination of a 1950s-style U.S. greasy diner and a downmarket Korean canteen. Sound unpromising? Well, this is blue-collar, cross-cultural, face-stuffing grub for those for whom sophisticated place settings and “well being” are not major concerns.
Besides the house specialty (on which more below), there are sausages at 9,000 won ($8.60), pork chops (12,000 won) and T-bone steaks (20,000 won), as well as barbecued pork (12,000 won) and beef (16,000 won). We request a T-bone, but are told that at least two must be ordered. Hmmm. Sausages, then? OK.
These come served on a hot, black skillet: Classic, PX-style porkers. A generous ration of eight, but taste-wise, nothing particularly exciting. The sauce is the best (or worst) of all worlds: a trilateral splattering of ketchup, tabasco and French’s mustard. Also served are kimchi, ggakddugi, bulbs of garlic and some of the most gruesome salads ever seen: piles of iceberg lettuce drizzled with ketchup and mayonnaise to create “Thousand Island dressing.”
But next up is the piece de resistance, Johnson tang, (or “Jones Tang,” as the hangul menu has it). Basically, what that 1965 GI chef came up with was a Korean budae jiggae (“regimental stew”) ― a mix of ration-can frankfurters, chunks of Spam, cubed spuds, onions, red and green peppers and white cabbage, in a spiced soup ― to which he added, to ameliorate the fierce bite, processed cheese.
Now, let us be honest: Processed cheese, spam and franks are not ingredients likely to summon the world’s gourmets from their kitchens. But the dish works.
The cheese adds a soft, almost creamy texture and taste to the soup; the spiciness only ambushes the back of the throat after swallowing. It is a good, hot, hearty mix, equally appropriate to fortify dogfaces before nights spent in frigid foxholes along the DMZ, or for stiffening presidential spines before a tete-a-tete with the formidable Park Chung Hee. A 20,000 won serving proved more than enough for three, and came with plain rice.
Beer, soju and the usual suspects are available at the usual prices. Beer is recommended as the most appropriate accompaniment.
Verdict: The cold season has descended. If you are looking for a cozy venue for a romantic meal for two to mark the year-end, best pass Bada Sikdang. (Sorry.) If, on the other hand, you are looking for some solid sustenance before a lads’ night out in the wintry ‘Won, this could be just the ticket. And where else can you dine like a president at these prices?
English: Not spoken; none on menu.
Tel: (02) 795-1317.
Subway: Itaewon station, line 7, exit 2 (about a 10-minute walk).
Hours: Noon-10 p.m. daily (closed 1st and 3d Sunday of each month).
Credit cards: Accepted.
by Andrew Salmon