Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jamón It

Yesterday my wife and I celebrated our 5th wedding anniversay*. At 36 (me) and 33 (she), we're both pretty much ready for retirement, and we spend most weekends at home doing crossword puzzles and knitting winter hats for orphans, but five years is a special number**, so a few weeks ago I started looking into places to take her for dinner on our anniversary.

I thought a Spanish tapas restaurant might be a good choice. They've been popping up all over Seoul in recent years like spawn from a wet Mogwai. I did a Google search (it took all of 0.37 seconds) and found a place in Itaewon named Tapeo that opened last year.

And so it was that we ventured into Itaewon yesterday afternoon. I made sure to wear a Kevlar vest. I'm joking about that, of course. Itaewon has somewhat rehabilitated its image as a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Traces remain, but the Korean Tourism Organization's strict no-stabbing-before-sundown rule seems to have been enforced.

Then again, everything is overly expensive and gentrified. I'm not sure which is worse.

I became most aware of this juxtaposition between the Old Itaewon*** and New Itaewon in the countenance of street vendors. They seemed defeated. When I saw a T-shirt I thought I might buy, or my wife saw a tchotchke she found interesting, the vendors seemed put out and tired, as though they would have preferred to pay us not to waste their time****.

We walked up the hill behind the Hamilton Hotel, and that's where the New Itaewon is most noticeable. It looks like a place normal people might like to hang out. The facades of the bars, bistros, and eateries***** actually look nice. (Except for Sam Ryan's, in front of which a group of daytime drunks stood and smoked, and one vociferous patron claimed that he was "totally about to nail that bitch.") But even that stretch isn't a paradise. Cheap plastic streamers of the flags of various countries hang above the walkway. I see the same decorations at a Hi-Mart opening.

We went into Prost for an aperitif. It's a spacious place, very well designed, and the music was good, the waitresses comely. But it cost me 8,000 won for a 350ml glass of Bitburger. This seemed to be a trend: bars not offering pints. If I order a beer, I would like an actual beer, not some sippy-cup facsimile. As an old man, I think I've earned that right.

Afterwards, we headed for Tapeo.

I am a man of simple pleasures. I enjoy sunsets, walks on the beach, and meat, especially of the cured variety.

When I read online that Tapeo serves jamón ibérico de bellota, I had to try it. I remembered an episode of No Reservations in which Anthony Bourdain had a mouthgasm over the thin, cured ham. In a way, I did to my wife what Homer Simpson did giving Marge a bowling ball for her birthday, because my sole purpose was to taste that delectable cured ham, but I regret nothing.

I wasn't as selfish as Homer, however. I knew my wife would enjoy the other plates and libations on the menu, the atmosphere, and so I looked online to see what other dishes were available. The squid-ink paella looked up her alley. I enjoyed it too, although I've been pooping black all day. That's the contract you sign when you eat squid ink, I suppose.

Tapeo's croquetas were also phenomenal. We both agreed on that. Fluffy, crunchy, like little clouds of Heaven sprinkled with bread crumbs.

But nothing, and I mean nothing, compared to the absolute bliss of the jamón ibérico. I have never been to outer space; I have never skydived; I have never watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.

But I have eaten jamón ibérico de bellota. It's like LSD for your tastebuds.

* I broke my old record!

** not to be confused with 3, the magic number; or 32, the Magic number

*** Full disclosure: The first time I visited Itaewon was in 2000, 14 years ago. The last time I went there prior to yesterday was in 2007. I'm obviously not an authority on the character changes of the area's character changes, although I play one on TV.

**** I bought a Hard Rock Cafe Seoul T-shirt -- obviously counterfeit and possibly made by a 4-year-old slave laborer -- because the shop owner was friendly.

***** I don't know the difference between the three -- just that it's a fancier way to say "pub" or "restaurant."

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