POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jul 28, 2010
The last thing I wanted to do was rile the owner of Ah-Lang Korean restaurant, but there I was, at the end of dinner, with no means of paying. Not only had I forgotten my wallet at home and, therefore, all cash, credit and bank cards, but so had my dinner guest.
That she is not one to be messed with is made abundantly clear on her menu, bearing the name for which she is better known: Angry Korean Lady.
Those who expect four-star service from restaurants would be best advised to take their prissy, soft hands and delicate hides elsewhere. At this small restaurant in the Imperial Plaza, there is no one to greet you, no one to take your order or bring you drinks. Plan to BYOB or grab a bottled water or canned soft drink from the small refrigerator case in the dining room.
For that matter, there's no one to help wash the dishes, either. There's only Won Nam there in the kitchen, doing all the work herself. No wonder she's angry.
Lucky for me, she'd be more accurately described as brusque and bossy. Being a bit brusque and bossy myself, we understand each other.
As soon as she opened her doors 2 1/2 years ago, with a name that she made up to mean "Lovely People," customers were telling her she was rude and angry. I asked her if it hurt her feelings, and she said, "Not really."
She's accustomed to it. "My daughter's friends always ask her, 'How come your mom's yelling at us?' and she says, 'That's just how she talks.'
"So people who know me know I tell everybody what to do, they don't tell me what to do, even since I was in elementary school. I yell to my mother, I yell to everybody. So if people call me grouchy, it's OK. I'm used to it. I know who I am.
"But what hurts if they say, 'Your food is no good.' That hurts me. Then, I cannot sleep. I try to figure out what's wrong."
Luckily, that doesn't happen often, because the Angry Korean Lady also happens to be a wonderful cook. Her moniker might bring in those seeking to satisfy their curiosity as to what an AKL might look like, but it's the food that brings them back.
When you get there, Nam will likely be in the kitchen, so guests must be resourceful and, if it's crowded, be prepared to wait. Those with larger parties should call at least two days ahead to make reservations and give her your order. A note on the tables explains: "This is a one woman show. if you see that i am busy, please write down your own order and call me in the kitchen. no shame!"
She wouldn't mind having help, but she's not satisfied with other cooks she's had in her kitchen, and doesn't even like the way other people wash dishes. She taught herself to cook because she didn't even like her mom's cooking.
Clearly, her life would be easier if she could compromise, but compromise wouldn't taste quite as good.
At first, confronted with a plain, nondescript menu simply reading "meat jun, bulgogi, kalbi and soon dobu" (various tofu stews), I was under the impression that diners showed up more to be yelled at than for the food. But with the first bites of her fried specialty wings ($9), it was clear AKL was not merely about the gimmick of being an angry Korean lady.
The wings are saturated with flavor from having been marinated 48 hours, fried, then finished with a sauce that's almost like a paste of garlic, green onion, sesame seeds and more. I could say more, but then AKL would come after me. Same thing with the secret of her tender kalbi, at three pieces for $13 or five pieces for $21. If you end up with extra pieces, it's because she isn't quite satisfied with the taste or quality of beef that day, and wants to make up for it. I get the feeling her "not good enough" is other restaurants' "10 times better than usual."
Mandoo (eight pieces for $9 or four-piece side order for $5) and broiled yellow corvina ($11) were on par with other Korean restaurants. Most people do end up coming specifically for the chicken wings, and Nam's amazing green onion with mixed seafood Korean pancake ($16). I have never seen a Korean pancake as big or filled with as much green onion as this one, at least two big bunches worth, with very little batter, only to bind the ingredients. She prepares her pancake this way because she also feels shortchanged when she goes out to eat and gets more batter than the main ingredients. It's beautiful to the eye and palate.
Nam became a restaurateur by accident, when she partnered with a chef who was going to do the cooking. But once the deal was made, the other person pulled out, and rather than lose her investment, she opened anyway.
She started offering $5 plate lunches by day to lure in the masses, but the herd instinct ran counter to her food philosophy.
"I love to cook and I want people to enjoy it. I don't want people who only want to fill up their stomach. It's not worth my time. I want to tell them, 'Get out!'
"I don't want people who ask 'What is good?' You tell me what you want, and I tell you if it's good. If it's not good, I'm gonna say so, because if I'm not satisfied, how can customers be satisfied?"
As for my inability to pay on my first visit to the restaurant, Nam didn't start yelling, but waited patiently for one of us to go home and get the money. If not, I guess she might have had dishwashing help after all.
Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.