Pork-soup noir — or a food mystery solved

Seoul Restaurant is a hidden gem in Federal Way.

I’ve got an appetite for good mystery. Sitting beneath a reading lamp into the pale hours of the morning, flipping pages of a Dashiell Hammett like a junkie in an alley. Wide eyed at the television as a detective noses his gun into the darkness.

For me, an unturned stone, an unanswered “why” is as enticing as any well-prepared dish or carefully baked treat, and if you’ve heard me gush about food in this column, you know exactly how enticing I find those things. So you can only imagine what a food mystery would do to me.

I stumbled across the Yelp page of a Federal Way Korean restaurant that claimed to be tucked into a parking lot with which I thought I was familiar. Seven reviews. Twelve photos.

“Why are there no reviews? This place is so good!!!” — G K.

“I am very satisfied…” — Seyeon K.

Snapshots of an exotic-looking soup that a few reviewers called gamjatang. Crimson liquid, meaty chunks of bone. Real Korean food. Maybe even traditional Korean food.

But I’d have to find it first. Yelp showed a dot, like a dart thrown at a map. A vague address, no phone number, no website, no hours. The almighty Google showed no evidence of the place existing or having ever existed. The name of the place would go whistling out into the ether of the interweb like a shout in the dark and not so much as an echo would return. One might conclude that the Yelp page was old and that the place had closed down some time ago, but the last review posted was 12 days old at the time, and even in these tumultuous days of exorbitant rents and fickle customers, less than two weeks is a short amount of time for a business to disappear without trace. All of my mystery experience told me that I was in need of a specialist. And I knew just the guy…

If a knowledgeable person has their finger on the pulse of a subject, then Young Cho is an echocardiogram for food in the Puget Sound. Cho runs Phorale, an Asian-Mexican fusion joint spackled to the inside of a truckstop in White Center. His food is adventurous and wild and so expertly executed that you can find him in the news, on TV and all over Yelp at the business end of gushing reviews. He also grew up here in Federal Way AND he happens speaks Korean fluently. The co-contributor to my blog, Krishan, had written about him back in April of 2016, and he’d stayed on our radar in the meantime, which is to say that we ate at his restaurant every time we were within 6 miles of the place.

So I called Krishan, and he called Cho, and on a Friday night, we met in that bustling parking lot on Pac Highway, minds sharp, senses heightened, bellies roaring.

It was a struggle right off the blocks. Wandering between the cars in the semi darkness, none of the business names matched the Yelp page we were looking for. We circled the complex twice, loping with our noses down like coyotes. Nothing. We poked our heads into businesses, looking for walls that matched the pictures. Cold crept in on the shirttails of the night and found us, stomachs rumbling, standing at the doorstep of defeat. We were about to cut our losses and shovel something marinated in disappointment into our food holes when our ace in the hole, Cho, dug his phone from his pocket and came up with an ace of his own.

“Hey, Mom?”

Two minutes later found us shuffling through the door of Seoul Restaurant.

Based on the description that Cho had given her, it was the only place that made sense. She said the Yelp page I was looking at was old, that the posts were planted by people who had punched the address into their search bar, found themselves at an abandoned profile and fired a review into it anyway.

I still had my doubts, but the breath in me was swallowed by the alluring smells reaching out of the door of Seoul Restaurant, drawing me into it. A waitress, maybe the only waitress, gathered us up and led us through the din of Friday dining. Families smooshed into booths around soup boiling over Sterno. People laughing, Soju in hand and all around the smell of spices, the sound of food and conversation in Korean.

The waitress handed us our menus and my eyes began a frantic search as Korean slithered out of Cho soft and casual. I heard their conversation peripherally as I elbowed my way down the page, stopping dead in my tracks halfway down it.

“Gamjatang — Pork-Bone Soup.” Vindication in 16 point Times New Roman.

“Gamjatang!” I shouted, and Cho nodded his head, smile alight in his eyes.

“That’s what I ordered for us,” he said.

There is a scene in every mystery in which the hero kicks down the door, peels the curtain back, plunges the shovel in. Everyone looks at one another because they’ve found themselves at the bottom of things.

For us, that moment came in the form of broth gurgling hypnotically in a hot stone bowl that looked just like the photos I’d slavered over. Our waitress laid our banchan out before us and bowls for bones, our soup, bright and hot and lusty, and we all looked at each other, simmering in the sounds of this hidden-in-plain-sight dining room with the spoils of our victory. We descended upon our food atavistically, teeth gnashing at meat and bone. Crimson broth, deep and rich with spicy flavor. Potato and cabbage and the crisp crackling of pickled goodies and rice, and I thought to myself that no matter how many murderers Sherlock Holmes unmasked, no matter how many doors Jack Reacher kicked down, they would never know the satisfaction of mystery soup in a place that didn’t exist on a cold November night.

Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.