the price of ambiance; the mission; + more

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Friday comes. I have become a person who snaps a picture of their commute, and then upload it with #tgif on Instagram. Alas. The Financial District has a nice aesthetic to it though, especially on foggy days. The steel and the blues of the building go well the greys of San Francisco.

Boyfriend and I had not done anything “fun” for a while, so he proposed we get dinner in the city. He met me after work, and I had looked up a couple of places of some hip-looking blogs. Combining that knowledge with the recommendation of certain hip friends, we decided upon Namu Gaji.

The restaurant describes itself on its website as:

A family run place. New Korean American (NKA) cuisine is humble, innovative and personal while keeping tradition close to heart. The menu is inspired by the weekly harvests from our farm and the finest local bounty.

Sounded good to me. I like humble. I like family-run. I like farm-to-table. So we went on a jaunt towards the Mission, the famed center of gentrification in San Francisco, ready to eat some homey Korean Food. We walked down the now extremely hip Valencia street, hungry and excited to eat. I wasn’t sure what I was imagining, but I was imagining a brightly lit, kimchi-fied diner of sorts. When we got the pin on Google Maps, we were a bit surprised. We walked in to a beautiful, dimly-lit wood-decorated space. The servers looked like the clients themselves– flannel, natural fabrics and generally very hip. We were ushered to sit at a wooden countertop table, and found ourselves being somewhat perplexed by the menu. Chicken Wings with Blue Cheese? A $23 stone-pot rice bowl? We decided to play it safe and ordered the 3.5 dollar (EACH) tacos, which were a special during Happy Hour.

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as the Boyfriend said, “Chicken Bits on Seaweed” — for $3.50 each
They brought out the stone-pot and told us to “let it sizzle so it’ll caramelize for 4 minutes.” Why couldn’t they have brought it out 4 minutes later?

For reasons I don’t understand, they were served in paper boats, perhaps to enhance the “street food” aesthetic. Pictured above is $6 of chicken bits, rice, and seaweed. We looked at each other with bemused facial expressions, and that was pretty much our facial expression throughout the whole evening. We ended up ordering the chicken wings, which were just as absurd as stated on the menu (and a ridiculously small portion for the price). Not sure where blue cheese comes in with “traditional” Korean cooking. They were pretty strange, in their plating and taste. We finished up with stone pot, which was straight forward and delicious, and pretty much the only reasonable thing we ordered (the price was not reasonable though).

The whole time, the Boyfriend and I exchanged glances at each other confused and amused by the whole ordeal. Our waiter was extremely friendly and the staff was lovely and personable, but surely they knew how overpriced the food was? Or maybe they believe in it– maybe they believe in their mason jars, their paper “street food” boats that come at luxury prices, maybe they believe that Namu Gaji serves “humble food that keeps tradition close to heart.” It was all very absurd, and we hastily exiting after paying a small fortune ($58 dollars for two seaweed “tacos”, 1 order of chicken wings, 1 stone pot).

As we were exiting the Namu Gaji, it was full with guests and people without reservations were being told that the wait was over an hour. The Boyfriend and I were utterly perplexed. What could it be that makes this place so popular? Perhaps we had ordered the worst dishes they had, but it was all just so expensive and… so not worth it.

This is the price of ambiance; I decided. When we forked over our cash for a little over 500 Kilocalories worth of food, we were paying for the smile of the friendly waiter, for the wood-polished tables, the mood lighting, the trendiness of the clientele– everything but the food.

Namu Gaji was an interesting experience to me, because it gave me a sense of closure of sorts. I’m not going to lie, if I were in high school, I would have loved it. I would have come back again and gone with my mother. In high school, I loved the idea of Bottega Louie, and my to-go Italian place was the ever-sexy, always loud Mi Piace. But eating in Namu Gaji, a restaurant with an aesthetic I eagerly craved in my Los Angeles suburban days, I think I’ve out grown my desire for the sexy city glamor. I don’t care whether you serve food in Mason Jars or your food or whether yelp describes your restaurant as having a “beautiful interior.” Your food better taste good (and it should be cheap too).

I’ve learned my lesson. Don’t trust the yelp reviews, don’t trust the hype. Imma stick to food that I know to be “humble”.

So on Saturday night, we were too lazy to cook so we went to a local Berkeley favorite, Lotus House.

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Lotus House does not have mood lighting. Your order and pick up your food at the counter. I’m pretty sure their milk tea is made from a powder.

But Lotus House is deliciously laden with so much MSG, so much oil, and it’s so so good. You could feed a whole minivan with $58 here. (Shout to House Special Chow Fun, BBQ Pork and Tofu over rice, Passion Fruit Milk Tea and Popcorn Chicken). $22 well-spent dollars later, I hobbled home because I was stuffed to the brim and it was hard to walk. But it was so worth it.

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