By Tom Layou
It is important to be able to find comfort. Through a couple rough years, I often found myself in a small room with four tables of varied size, usually empty enough to get the one I like. I always went tired, on meal breaks. The soup, the thing I came for, is a substantial meal when eaten with the provided rice, seaweed, an egg served over-easy, and lately when I go there’s been extra tofu. All this comes in a traditional Korean presentation, each item on a separate plate to be added as desired. The soup itself is a bowl of kimchi, tofu, and vegetables with chili flakes, the broth still boiling.
This is not a dart across the street for 15 minutes meal. If I was working enough it was the meal I planned my day around, all important calls and errands taken care of some other time. The days I really needed it, I figured it out.
No matter who was behind the counter, we didn’t have to talk a whole lot.
“Kimchi soup?” They’d say.
Nobody needed to ask if I wanted the green tea, it just showed up.
Over time, conversation with the owners stayed sparse but I felt like we were friends. I was always happy to see them, always greeted warmly. Being a stagehand is a terrible thing to do to yourself. The hours are preposterous, there is a lot of yelling, swearing, behavior accepted nowhere else in the professional world — everyone is sweating, some portion of the people you suspect of carrying hepatitis are bleeding on all the gear, and there is also a lot of unpleasantness. The rigors of tech week, that magical time of smashing a half dozen technical designs together around the performance they are intended for, is fun to laugh about on occasion and there is a macabre glory to it becoming a mainstay of your world, but by the time I was a Lead Electrician for my union the most notable part of any show was tossing my keys on my dinner table at 4 a.m. and looking around at all the nothing in my life.
There was more going on. There wasn’t a lot that felt good. There was my first cup of coffee in the morning, and there was the kimchi soup at Scottie’s Sub Shop.
When I spoke with the owner he wanted his daughter there to help with communication.
How long have you been in Anchorage?
Yong Hwang: “Twelve years now.”
Where did you come from?
Yong Hwang: “South Korea. We’re from Seoul.”
How did you open Scottie’s, how did you get started?
Yong Hwang: “I bought it from other Koreans, eleven years ago now.”
Was it hard? Was it difficult to get things going?
Yong Hwang: “The first three years were really hard. Everything changed. We lost customers, and then, since one year after that, it’s been good.”
It’s kind of been better since then?
Yong Hwang: “Yes.”
What do you think of Anchorage?
Yong Hwang: “I like it. I like the cold weather, it’s like our country. So it’s really comfortable and I like it.”
Do you spend a lot of time working on the restaurant outside of the open business hours?
Yong Hwang: “Yeah. We work about twelve or thirteen hours a day.”
In conversation I had gotten more comfortable with Yong Hwang and took on a brass tacks tone,
All right, Yong Hwang, What’s in the soup?
Over his shoulder, Yong Hwang looked back to the kitchen. I couldn’t tell if his wife, Maria, had stepped away just then. He looked back at me.
It was time for me to cut the shit.
You don’t have to tell me, but how is the soup made? So, you know I’m a huge fan of your soup, I love that soup, uh...
Yong Hwang: “That’s Korean soup. The Korean Airline crews, about eleven years ago, one Korean Airline crew came here, and they asked about kimchi soup, so we tried it out on the menu.”
Oh, so that’s something you tried after they visited?
Yong Hwang: “Yeah. The Korean Airline crews stay in the hotels, so it’s good.”
Has it been a popular item?
Yong Hwang: “Yeah, it’s a popular item. It’s Koreans’ favorite soup.”
Is there anything else people ought to know?
Yong Hwang: “I’m just a neighbor in the community. I live here, and I’m happy.”
I’ve found easier ways to get by, fortunately, and I’m not downtown as often anymore, but I still make trips for the soup. Pilgrimages. Sometimes days I still need the soup in the old way, sometimes more a grateful homage to what it meant in harder times. When I’m planning a first date I always feel like the requirement is to go someplace with lush booths and geometric lighting fixtures crammed anywhere stylish, maybe a restaurant that has the exact same decorations and menu at another spot across town, as well as a dozen places in Des Moines and twenty-eight in Denver. But what I really want to know about that new person is, if I can take her to Scottie’s. If I can show her that soup, and tell her what it is to me.
Yong Hwang and Maria are still there. Thirteen hours every single day that’s not Sunday. When snow and cold are brutal in the winter, when there are more fun things to do in summer, Yong Hwang and Maria are at Scottie’s Sub Shop with a whole menu of hot and cold sandwiches, burgers, salads and house specialties to make people happy. You can see Yong Hwang out making deliveries downtown any day, smiling with a bag full of food, often with a stocking cap plopped on his head. I saw a Door Dash driver at the restaurant this last time. Yong Hwang says they take two or three deliveries a day to areas outside his range. But seriously, you should go downtown and try that soup.