￼My photographer is surrounded by waitresses wearing starch-pressed uniforms. They are grabbing his camera, repeating “no photos” in halting Mandarin. The editor and his girlfriend hang by the entrance, clearly regretting their decision to join the magazine’s newest writer on his first restaurant review.
An aura of fear hangs in the air. Our dog meat soup has yet to arrive.
Welcome to the Pyongyang BBQ, the only North Korean eatery in Beijing.
I attempt to sooth the desperate waitresses, telling them that we are fellow workers, comrades. Harsh stares penetrate the barbecue smoke from the neighboring table, and there is some quick chatter in a Korean dialect few Americans will ever hear. She shoots a glance that puts ice in my bowels.
It is both question and accusation.
I wrack my brain. What country would be least offensive to North Korean sensibilities?
Their moon-faces soften slightly. There is more chatter in the North Korean dialect.
“You may photograph the dishes,” one says. “No faces.”
We agree that strict anonymity will be maintained.
Our menu is produced, a black folder with numerous plastic sleeves holding hundreds of index cards on which are handwritten dish-names in Korean and Chinese. The Chinese characters are meaningless phonetic transliterations of the original Korean. There are neither pictures nor colorfully worded descriptions.
Such trivial details are for the bourgeois!
Our waitress hovers rigidly above our table, pencil impatiently tapping pad.
“Can you recommend some typical Korean dishes?” I ask.
She stiffens as if touched with a cattle prod, icy stare deepening.
“We are North Korean.” She corrects me before resuming her pad-tapping. We quickly order several dishes at random.
The first thing to arrive is the kimchi. I eagerly shove a chunk into my mouth, regretting it immediately.
“Is this your spiciest kimchi?” I ask, my face turning scarlet.
“Our second most spicy. We would not serve a foreigner our most spicy kimchi unless we wished them dead.”
These will be the kindest words she says all night.
More dishes arrive. My photographer is nowhere to be seen. I envision him hog-tied in the trunk of a car with diplomatic plates, racing towards the border.
Perhaps his insistence on photographing the North Korean opera blaring from the television was a bad move.
To hell with this restaurant. This review is over!
I get up as inconspicuously as possible, muttering something about needing the toilet and walk sideways like a crab towards the door, my eyes twitching from the smoke. I am about to bolt for freedom when I spot my photographer coming out of the kitchen.
“I was trying to chat up a prep chef, but he wouldn’t tell me anything.”
“What the hell did you expect? Shit, lower that camera before they crucify us. We have many, many dishes to get through.”
We return through the smoke to our table, blinded and choking as surely as if the bartender had detonated a tear gas grenade. My dining comrades are chatting, filtering the air through lit cigarettes.
I say something like “the meat…cough…is…cough…flavorful.”
They nod in agreement.
We are given a plate stacked high with tomato, onion and garlic, all of it raw. We cannot figure out how to cook it on our table without having it fall through the grill, and wind up shoveling it into our mouths uncooked. This turns out to be good practice for the next dish, small bowls filled with raw chopped beef. A raw egg has been cracked in each bowl.
I ask the waitress how it the dish is best enjoyed. She takes my bowl and mixes it until it becomes a glutinous meat paste.
“Eat,” she commands.
The oily mixture slides down my throat like a wad of meat-flavored phlegm. I surreptitiously slide the bowl across the table: best to save my appetite for the restaurant’s apparent specialty, the pot of dog meat soup that the waitress has just placed on our table. Our request for bowls are ignored, so we eat straight from the pot.
Dog meat is a dark pungent meat with a somewhat stringy texture. It is said to be a warming meat with yang-strengthening properties, equally good for cold winter days or long passion-filled nights. Try to ignore the theme to Lassie which will inevitably run through your head while you eat.
There is very little at the Pyongyang BBQ for the vegetarian to enjoy. The editor’s girlfriend refused to even touch her chopsticks. She fled from the table when the raw beef came out and did not return. We ordered a spicy cold noodle dish that never arrived. We got a small dish which we didn’t order, a plate of two kinds of glutinous cakes. I assumed that this was dessert, and ate a piece expecting it to be sweet. It tasted like sawdust and had the texture of hardening denture paste.
How does one explain the difference between excellent dog meat soup and dog meat soup that is merely mediocre? The Pyongyang BBQ restaurant calls for a different review metric entirely, and in this metric the restaurant earns high marks in all categories. Cuisine is clearly authentically North Korean and earns four stars. Ambiance hearkens back to China’s bygone days of constant paranoia, earning again four stars. And service is as good as you’d expect in Pyongyang, so four stars again.
Pyongyang BBQ is a restaurant that fulfills the needs of a worker’s state. It is not a good place to take a skittish first date. Do not harangue the wait-staff with petty questions. Keep your nationality to yourself. Avoid “Pyongyang Star,” the North Korean National Beer — it’s vile.
Return at reasonably spaced intervals. The Permanent Revolution is best enjoyed in small doses.
Cold War Cuisine ran originally in Beijing Scene Magazine, Summer 1999.
Want to read more stories like these? Order How Not to Avoid Jet Lag ~ Nineteen stories from the increasingly deranged mind of travel Writer Joshua Samuel Brown, with illustrations by David Lee Ingersoll.