I opened my phone’s browser app, prepared to dial in a pickup order for Saturday night. A busy day of adulting around Overland Park, Kansas, left me with zero energy for grocery shopping or cooking, but the growling in my stomach warned me I had little time to stave off an irritable mood.
My thumb drew a haphazard path across the screen, typing in the name of my favorite Korean restaurant. When “Sobahn” appeared at the top of the search results, I clicked, eager to recite my usual order and hear the familiar, “See you in 10–15 minutes,” on the other end.
Instead of the menu and phone number, though, I saw a large banner with big bold letters. “Thank you for your support! We are permanently closed.”
My mood sank as my stomach grumbled in protest. Sobahn is just another name added to the long list of small businesses and family-operated restaurants that couldn’t weather the Covid-19 storm.
I mentally kicked myself for not dialing in an order sooner — after all, they had just closed a few days prior and the pain of missing out by such a small margin added insult to injury. I thought of the family that owned the restaurant. From the matriarch multi-tasking in the kitchen to the energetic older man performing every role from host to server to busboy to the younger faces who always welcomed me through the doors. My heart hurts for them.
From the outside, it looked like a dark and dingy storefront, tucked between an Asian market and a nail salon in a nondescript strip mall. But to me, it was one of the most tangible ties to my Korean heritage. It represented the culture I crave to know, always out of reach given the disconnect my family forged among themselves. Now that Sobahn is gone, it feels further out of reach than ever.
My mother’s parents left South Korea in the late 1950s. Her father was a minister and professor of theology, studying and later teaching at various universities and colleges. Her mother raised four children and worked in a support role at the local VA hospital once they settled in St. Louis.
They decided to stay, eventually becoming United States citizens and stamping their children with the good fortune of being born in America. My mother was born in the summer of 1963. She’s never traveled abroad or visited extended family in Asia. Aside from her physical appearance, she may as well be white, considering how fully she’s assimilated into mainstream white culture and abandoned the traditions of her Korean heritage.
It catches me off guard sometimes, thinking how little it would have taken for the trajectory of my mother’s life to look very different. For my life to look very different.
I also grew up entrenched in mainstream white culture. My father’s hometown became home to us, too, and the lack of diversity was glaringly obvious at every turn. The only contrast offered to me came when we packed up the car to visit my grandmother, who lived alone after a bitter divorce set the stage for the family strife of the future. I caught a glimpse of Korea in the scrolls hanging on her walls, the spines of books stacked in the back office, and the flourish of one-sided conversation I overheard when she spoke on the phone in a hybrid of Korean and English.
As a young child, visiting my grandmother ensured at least one of the following:
- A sliced Asian pear would be shoved under my nose with enthusiastic encouragement to eat every slice.
- Frozen rice cakes would be left to thaw on the tiled countertop, waiting to be microwaved until my grandmother removed random items she’d been storing on top of the spinning glass tray.
- I would perch on a stool in her narrow kitchen, watching her strip unfamiliar greens from their stems or tend to the small botanical garden of aloe and jade plants in the window above the sink.
- She would slip me a package of Botan rice candy, reminding me I could eat the wrapper, demonstrating just in case that wasn’t made clear.
My father, for all his redneck tendencies, would eat an impressive amount of whatever my grandmother served. She was ahead of the trends with raw-food diets, juicing, and other unproven elixirs of health, but she would still spend hours cooking traditional dishes when we visited, even if she no longer ate them herself.
At this point, I haven’t seen her since I was in college. She didn’t attend my wedding. We don’t speak on the phone. Part of it feels like I’m to blame, as I’ve never initiated or pursued a relationship with her in my adult life, but neither has she. It doesn’t mean I don’t wish for that to be different. I do. But how do I express my desire to know and feel what it’s like to be Korean to someone who’s done so much to erase that part of their identity?
With Sobahn off the menu, I’m not sure where to turn when the cravings strike. Can you feel nostalgic for something that was never really yours? Can you feel homesick for a place you’ve never been?
With Sobahn off the menu, I’m not sure where to turn when the cravings strike. Can you feel nostalgic for something that was never really yours? Can you feel homesick for a place you’ve never been? If memories are told through food, these are the dishes linking me to the parts of my family I’ve never been able to know.
Stuffed with pickled radish, carrots, egg, fish cakes, and rice, the vibrant colors of this Korean-style roll used to remind me of a stained glass window. The thin slices, uniform and precise, can be eaten like sushi. That is, in one giant bite with no apologies for messy chewing or escaped grains of rice.
Sobahn featured this on their appetizer menu, with the disclaimer that it wasn’t always available. When it was, it was always worth the wait as they made it fresh upon ordering. The juxtaposition of the crispy, crunchy veggies next to the soft, chewy rice is something I’ll miss — few other dishes offer the same satisfaction in every overstuffed bite.
One of my grandmother’s specialties, though I took for granted the chances I had to enjoy her homemade version. The slippery stir-fried sweet potato glass noodles were hard to handle as a child so I usually followed my mother’s lead and resorted to using a fork. My fine motor skills have improved since then, though Sobahn’s metal chopsticks still proved challenging.
Try as I might, I can never quite replicate the sweet flavor of the sauce when I try making it myself.
Kongnamul Bibim Bap
Though I love classic bibimbap (“mixed rice”) as much as the next person, this version stole the show the first time I tried it. Served in the same piping hot stone dish (dolsot), this version features a heaping pile of bean sprouts and spicy pork instead of the more common version with marinated beef and a fried egg.
It’s probably the only dish I eat that gets hotter after you serve it. I see that as a good thing — I’m forced to slow down and savor each bite, carefully selecting the components of the next and cautiously blowing to cool it enough to avoid burning the roof of my mouth.
The best part is the crispy rice that forms around the edges of the sizzling hot bowl. My mother told me stories about how she and her siblings would fight over these pieces as children. In my mind, I can picture them even though it’s a scene I’ve never witnessed with my own eyes.
My mother’s go-to order.
Kimchi, or the fermented combo of Napa cabbage and radish, colors this dish a vibrant red thanks to the chili paste that seasons it. When she told me how her family hosted “kimchi day” as a kid, I never knew whether to fully believe her. She claimed the pungent scent permeated the entire block, alerting the neighbors that something peculiar and foreign was happening across the street. Though it’s true kimchi is traditionally stored in the ground in heavy earthenware, I’ve never confirmed if they actually buried it in the backyard.
Her bowl of jjigae (“stew”) would arrive at the same time as the rest of the meal but she’d quickly fall behind the rest of us, the cadence of her eating slowed by the spice and heat of the dish as well as her customary nature of being the slowest eater at the table.
It’s perhaps one of the simplest dishes, but it’s the one I loved the most. Sobahn’s tteok guk (rice cake soup) was always served with exactly three dumplings, floating in an opaque beef broth alongside rice cakes and scallions. I remember timidly walking into a Korean grocery store for the first time as an adult, peering down the unfamiliar aisles until I saw them; the vacuum-sealed white slivers of rice cakes were one of the few things I recognized among all the labels I couldn’t read.
For all its simplicity, this dish was surprisingly filling. I could trust I’d leave with a full belly, warmed from the inside out and completely sated on a cold wintery day.
This is where the clash of cultures in my family comes to a head.
The same sweet sesame marinade used for thinly sliced strips of beef sirloin shows up on venison kebabs threaded onto skewers with bacon and onions. The former was rarely prepared at home, given the challenges of sourcing ingredients and perfecting the grilling technique. The latter became my father’s trademark recipe, served at all kinds of family events, potlucks, and barbecues.
I can’t help but feel a swell of pride in knowing my father embraced my grandmother’s cooking enough to incorporate it into something distinctly his.
A sobahn is a small table used for intimate family dinners. Handmade, crafted from antique wood, there’s something intentional and durable about the thick, heavy design. The robust, rounded edges offer comfort and familiarity.
A cozy place to nourish body and spirit.
I wish I could share these dishes with my partner, knowing he’s never tasted them. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never recreate the authentic flavors in our kitchen. I want to be able to sit close to my sister, eating more than my share of kimbap as we spill the gossip. I miss listening to my father stumble over his order, attempting to roll the awkward pronunciations off his tongue rather than pointing at the menu.
I’m disappointed I can no longer slip into an alternate version of myself by pulling up a chair at Sobahn. It was a cozy place I’ll always remember for the way it helped me weld together past and present, long after it’s replaced by something new.