The Korean greeting sounds almost musical as we enter So Gong Dong Tofu & BBQ on Montgomery’s east side. Our hostess leads us past tables laden with steaming stews, marinated rib eye, and shallow dishes of crisp pickled vegetables.
If I were a cartoon character, I’d be floating through the wood-paneled restaurant on wisps of tantalizing scents right now. Sharp garlic. Sizzling meats. Caramelized starches.
Nowadays, the cool kids fall in love with South Korean culture via K-pop music and binge-worthy TV dramas. (There’s even a name for this modern phenomenon, Hallyu, a.k.a. the “Korean Wave.”) But the East Asian nation followed a far more traditional path to my heart: straight through my stomach.
A brief visit to Seoul a few years ago opened my eyes to the singular flavors of Korean cuisine. And it’s this trip to Montgomery, with its sizable Korean-born community, that I hope will teach me more about the culture or, at the very least, enough etiquette to not embarrass myself at dinner.
My lessons, as it turns out, reach beyond the table to the stage, stadium, and shop floor, and remind me that a good, shared meal is a great way to learn how much you have in common with someone.
The latter sentiment happens to be a key part of the Korean ethos, Seoul-born Montgomery attorney Soo Seo Yang later assures me.
“Koreans think eating together is an important part of getting to know each other, getting closer, and building friendships,” Yang says.