Shortly after I met Virginia, she invited me along to dinner with some of her friends. I accepted, assuming that we would be going to a korean restaurant where a full meal costs about $6.00 and you don't have to tip. However, it turns out that we were on the search for a Mexican restaurant that the friend of a friend had told Virginia's friend was right in our neighborhood, only a 5 minute walk from our apartment building.
Mexican food in Korea?
The idea sounded less than promising to me. After living in Boston with my friend, Miss Texas Optimism, my standards for Mexican food have graduated from 99 cent chalupas at Taco Bell. Not that I'm above a cheap chalupa - it's just that now, I know the difference between it a burrito with spicy black beans, lime cilantro rice, cheese and homemade guacalome, wrapped in fresh tortilla and offered up with equally fresh torilla chips and salsa.
Considering that the only thing remotely American that I have seen in my neighborhood is a chain fastfood place called Lotteria (which is like McDonalds before the lawsuit and the enormous quality reforms. Scratch that, Lotteria is worse than that), I was not really believing that good Mexican was just around the corner.
Whatever, I'm game, I went anyway.
The second our little group stepped out of the elevator and onto the first floor into a large waiting room decorate with marble floors and chinzy mozart, I felt a curl of dread in the bottom of my stomach.
What is this place?
Large family groups were shuffling around, staring at us. My feet, dressed only in flip flops, felt uncomfortably naked next to the parade of heels that clicked by us. We went in to what turned out to be a buffet.
A huge, high-school-cafeteria-on-world-diversity-day type of buffet, complete with over-fried general tao chicken, and colorful desserts that look amazing, but only from a distance.
I was, in a word, horrified.
Bravely, I went from station to station, sampling the food. I ate some bastard-child paella and general tao chicken that was pretty much just tough breading and spicy sauce. There was also bland potato soup, sweet and sour fried shrimp which made it onto my plate but not into my mouth, and sushi that would have been ashamed to sit next to the take home selection in Stop N' Shop.
I soldiered through it, not for pleasure or politeness' sake, but because I, unfortunately, checked the price before I started eating: $20. Ok, I know it's not that much. But considering that I can go and stuff myself silly at a Korean barbecue restaurant with delicious meat cooked right at my table and accompanied by more side dishes than I know how to use for the previously mentioned $6.00, I felt obligated to eat my way through the sodium and sugar until I got my money's worth.
Not to worry - I didn't suffer silently. Every else was as I shocked as I was at how terrible - and terribly unmexican - the food was. In in the end, we all loaded up on chocolate frozen yogurt and coffee before leaving, because they were both mercifully inoffensive to the tongue. Nothing like ice cream to put a band aid on a wounded soul.
That night, I made up my mind to give up on American food entirely. Of course, I promptly tossed that resolution out the window the next time Virginia invited me out to dinner. But more on that later.