Friday, May 22, 2009

Korean Restaurant Turn Out To Be Japanese, Causes Flashbacks And Rambling Anecdote

Donna and I had dinner recently at Kobe's, a new asian place in Fargo. I mistakenly thought it was a Korean barbeque because there's a sign out front that says "Korean barbeque". The reality is that Kobe's is a teppen yaki place with a menu that ranges across several aspects of asian cuisine.

We sat at the hibachi table so we could experience a professional chef pretend to throw bits of food at us and make jokes whose sole claim to humor was the speaker's inability to speak english. It was totally worth it, as from experience I know that there is always a customer who will provide way more entertainment than the chef. I'll get into that experience and its attendant horrors shortly. First, let's talk about the man I'll call Old Joe, because I can and because I don't know his real name. Old Joe was saddled with poor hearing and an inability to understand that most Japanese restaurants don't actually employ Japanese people. Kobe's has a strong Indonesian contingent (by way, apparently, of New York).

Old Joe asked whereabouts in Japan both our server and chef were from. Despite the answer in both cases being "not from Japan -- Indonesia!", Old Joe was quick to point out his Japan-friendly bona fides by relating that a good friend of his from Hawaii was Japanese and coming to visit this summer. I kept waiting for the inevitable, "I was in Japan in 1945. Seemed nice." line of conversation to erupt, but Old Joe was too crafty for that. Instead, when told that the chef and server liked Fargo more than New York except for missing the Statue of Liberty, he replied with a hearty (if nonsensical), "well Fargo doesn't like you either!" Can't wait to see the photos from the Japanese Hawaiian guy's visit this summer.

The dinner was not all fun and bigotry though. You see, my first job experience was as a dishwasher in a Japanese steakhouse in Columbus, Ga. There, all the staff were Korean[*] except for the dishwashers. It was a terrible job, always coming home smelling like soy sauce and minimum wage, but it was the kind of job you got when you were still in high school. All the chefs were talented and nice to us, even though they didn't speak a word of English. I'm sure that if they could somehow get green cards they could have gotten jobs as chefs where they got paid more than fifty cents an hour.

But the memories that haunt me still all revolve around the owner's wife, who roamed that restaurant looking for reasons to yell at us occidentals, always in korean (she somehow knew less english than the chefs, who knew none) and always for no apparent reason. I'll call her "Grandma", because, well, that's what we called her when I worked there.

Grandma was an old school Korean lady who didn't cotton to those newfangled western ideas of "respect for employees", "wasting time cleaning" or "not putting half-eaten soup back into the pot". I wish I was kidding, but I'm not. I'm not claiming that food brought back to the kitchen from customers was re-served to different customers. That would be disgusting. No, I just mean that Grandma would come though the kitchen sometimes and help herself to a bowl of egg drop soup, eat half of it, then dump the rest back into the pot. No harm there. She did the same thing with the ice cream.

I know what you're all thinking: surely the health inspector closed that place down. You would be wrong. Sorry.

I used to have some fun with Grandma. She had a strange desire to make people think she understood english even though it was obvious she didn't. You could start a conversation with Grandma in which she would nod and agree profusely with whatever you said. A typical conversation would go something like this:

Me: Hey, Grandma, where do you want this tray of chicken?

Grandma: [string of korean words]

Me: Think we'll be busy tonight?

Grandma: [speaking korean, nodding vigorously]

Me: How 'bout that whole invading Panama thing, huh? That's some crazy crap!

Grandma: [speaking korean, nodding vigorously, dumping half-eaten soup into pot]

It took me a long time to eat in an asian restaurant again after working there. I love the food, but I didn't trust the restaurants. Every employee, from the hostess to the server to the chef to the cashier reminded me of the hideous grinning visage of Grandma, who was easily 115 years old back in 1987. But I got over it with time. Don't let this story discourage you. That restaurant has since closed down, and I'm sure Grandma must have passed on by now.

That rambling anecdote was certainly not intended to put you off Kobe's, which was really good. Excellent food, quick service, entertaining employees. Fargo needed more places with character and non-cookie-cutter menus. If you live in the Fargo area or are planning to visit you should try it. But if you see a 140-ish looking woman in there with a bowl of soup, go somewhere else.

[*] Do Japanese people exist? If so, do any of them work in Japanese restaurants? If I go to Tokyo for sushi, will it be served by a Vietnamese person?

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