James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Hot Dogs and Bean Pops on the Far Side of the World

Hot Dogs and Bean Pops on the Far Side of the World

America Brunch in Chungju

Spring, like everything in Chungju, is equal parts ugliness and beauty. Cherry blossoms snow over the slaloming traffic. Cool breezes drag in dust from the Gobi Desert. The mountains are impressionistic with haze, the skyline needs a good vacuuming. I’m homesick, a condition that for me has one symptom: an untamable craving for brunch.

Honest-to-goodness, all-American, artery-clogging brunch. As in, the opposite of Korean food.

My friend Mi-yeong doesn’t understand this. Koreans don’t distinguish between breakfast and other meals. It’s rice, soup, and kimchi, three times a day. Indulgence occurs after dark—late-night barbecues of pork belly wrapped in lettuce or delivery fried chicken with pickled radish.

But I’ll take my grease mid-morning, please, unmitigated by vegetables. Give me bacon and sausage, crispy hash browns, bottomless cups of coffee. That’s the stuff memories are made of. Like my dad’s traditional good luck breakfasts every Friday the 13th. Or hitting an IHOP with friends after an all-nighter. Or planning a madcap honeymoon from a diner booth, maps spread across our plates. Such indulgence isn’t possible in my podunk Korean town.

Until I find a staircase, wedged into a neighborhood of back-alley bars. The signboard out front promises “America Brunch.” I know the English could be meaningless decoration. But it’s also written in Korean, so it might actually be true.

Mi-yeong insists on coming. Up the stairs we find a room of lace and linen, woven bamboo chairs, crystal chandeliers. White mugs and moist towelettes wait on the tables. The hostess sets my place with a fork and knife, triggering a strange nostalgia.

The America Brunch not only exists, but is described as egg, sausage, potatoes, and bagel. We order two. I ask for lattes first, convincing Mi-yeong that it’s Very American to drink coffee with the meal. They arrive with a complimentary appetizer—a deep bowl of salad.

It’s delicious, but not quite in the right spirit. Brunch, I explain, should be exuberantly unhealthy. Decadent. Delicious as sin.

A second salad arrives, spattered with blood-red vinaigrette. Beneath it, I find my brunch. A plop of yellow eggs. A lukewarm hotdog drizzled with mustard. A scattering of crinkle-cut fries. Pickles, bagel, and ketchup. An exquisite red-bean lollipop comes on the side.

Mi-yeong is thrilled to be eating foreign food. I don’t tell her that we both are.
It’s not quite the brunch I wanted. I miss the grease. But hot dogs and bean pops on the far side of the world—that’s the stuff of memories.

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