The kimchi chigae at Hannuri is served in a private room and is guaranteed to take you back to better times. Photo by Calvin Godfrey
I landed my first apartment with the help of a sociopath who had two rabbits that she referred to as her children. She needed someone to babysit the rabbits (which needed to be fed three times a day) when she was out of town and I seemed like a reasonable enough candidate.
The building was an old Miami Beach motel made beautiful by an open courtyard full of palm trees and glossy ferns. My 500 square foot studio cost US$750 a month, mainly because it was four blocks from a beach where pretty young women from all over the country came to swim.
After borrowing the last month and security deposit from my parents, I was moved in (a futon and a frying pan) and went to the beach. I don't recall doing so for the rest of my time there.
In the ensuing months, I worked all the time; I was 23, broke and had everything to prove.
On the weekend, I tried to find other ways to work or spent dreadful hours staring into the air conditioned void of my empty apartment. My only friends for miles were the sociopath and her rabbits.
Things didn't get better until I drove to a bunker-like Korean grocery store in Fort Lauderdale and spent $200 on a rice cooker, a giant sack of Korean short-grain and about a dozen jars of delicious pickles with which I filled my fridge.
I had nothing to look forward to at the end of the week save a luxurious bowl of rice, pickles and a fried egg. Soon I had a table and some chairs and guests"”journalists who were floored by the idea of a house with any food in it at all.
Here in Ho Chi Minh City, the cheap feasting never stops and the notion of waiting all day for a bowl of pickles and rice seems absurdly quaint to me now. Somewhere in the back of my mind, however, the thought persists that all any man needs is a big bowl of Kimchi and a room of one's own.
And, I think, I've kept looking for those things, often with terrible results.
Last Friday, I ended up marooned in District 7's low-rent Blade Runner neighborhood eating a cloying dish that my companion and I first embraced (and later spurned) as "bowling alley chicken" accompanied by a salad of raw cabbage dressed in ketchup and mayonnaise.
Determined not to have another subpar Korean meal again, I consulted my Level 4 Vietnamese language class"”which, if not for my prescience, might as well be held in Korean.
When asked for a single recommendation, the room filled with a minute of pensive humming followed by a halting debate half in Vietnamese, half in Koreanand finally a minor argument"”entirely in Korean.
The only thing everyone agreed on was that a restaurant called Hannuri on Ton Duc Thang Street served a decent kimchi chigae.
The class described the dish as only "soup;" Hannuri's menu describes it as a "kimchi hotpot." I can only tell you that it's exactly what I've been looking for for three years. You can locate Hannuri, on a Saturday evening, by following the cherry-faced men stumbling out the front door like signal flares.
Once inside the lobby, a blithe Korean manager will clap you on the back and push you into the care of a team of waitresses who will whisk you into a screened private room outfitted with sunken tables, air conditioner, recessed gas grills and a doorbell designed to summon more kimchi.
Address: 11A Ton Duc Thang Street, Dist. 1, HCMC
What to order: Kimchi chigae VND380,000
(easily feeds four normal persons or two Calvins)
I was with a veteran South Korean English teacher who insisted on the restaurant's selection of makeoli"”the milky white rice wine that's notorious for its sweet flavor, creeping drunk and bad hangovers"” and this looked too good to pass up.
We drank deeply from black plastic bowls while nibbling on Hannuri's perfect pickles"”all of which walked the perfect line between salty and spicy. When the kimchi chigae finally arrived, we'd just ordered our second bottle of makeoli and watched in awe as our waitress cut long strips of cabbage into a pot bubbling with chunks of pork belly.
By the time the restaurant closed, we'd both slipped into our respective pasts and were halfway to dreaming. The price of this ride was just $15 per person. I anticipate that I'll take another very, very soon.
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