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The shingle’s out

Soot Bull Jeep has fast become my go-to joint for friends who visit me in Koreatown filled with curiosity about this “Korean barbecue” stuff. Repeated endorsements from no less a food luminary than Jonathan Gold got me in the door in the first place. “Dinner at Soot Bull Jeep is an atavistic thing,” he writes, “not just good liquor and platters of raw meat, but also smoke and fire, and showers of small cinders that can leave your shirt looking like a cartoon bulldog right after an encounter with an exploding cigar.” That article appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1993. Since then, Koreatown’s bewildering array of barbecue houses has grown more bewildering still, but I haven’t visited one yet that matches Soot Bull Jeep’s all-around sensory impact.

The most obvious vehicle of this impact comes in the form, of course, of dark wood wall paneling, maroon plastic upholstery over cheap metal chair frames, and vast tracts of brown Formica. You’d think such decor would directly evoke the seventies, but it ultimately comes off as idiosyncratic rather than purely retro. Besides, the place only opened in the late eighties; it must have just seemed unfashionable then. I like to think I genuinely appreciate the dining room’s faintly Spartan midcentury high school feel, but its visual aesthetics seem to function more as a means of focusing one’s attention elsewhere, to the main event: the grill, the meat, the flames, the smoke.

Korean barbecue aficionados make much, and rightly so, of Soot Bull Jeep’s hardwood charcoal-fired table grills. This makes for a richer dining experience — richer smells, richer crackly noises, richer showers of sparks, and hell, probably even somewhat richer flavors — than what you get from those just-flick-on gas grills used at even other Korean barbecue joints regarded as the crème de la crème. You can tell the waitresses to load these grills with run-of-the-mill beef and chicken, but given the context, why would you want to? Order up a couple piles of Korean surf-and-turf: tongue will represent the land, of course, but consider yourself free to choose between squid and eel as your envoy from the sea.

I often wonder why I don’t run across more Korean barbecues that grill with wood, although the answer probably lays in people actually meaning it when they complain about the smoke smell clinging to their clothes. While they may, on some level, have a point, these people have exchanged the very concept of joie de vivre for a sort of anxiety-driven waking death. This also holds true for those who complain that Soot Bull Jeep doesn’t offer all the meat you can eat, doesn’t have a big enough parking lot, or operates out of a “bad neighborhood”. Tell you what: move within three blocks of the place, like I did — straight into the belly of this urban beast! — and you won’t have to deal with parking. You can go to Soot Bull Jeep every week and try everything. I’ll teach you how to live again. I’m serious.

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Lunching at Soot Bull Jeep earlier this week, Creative Destruction host and documentarian Rob Montz asked me an important question: what in the hell am I doing for a career? Sure, I flagrantly paraphrase, but his core curiosity remains valid indeed. To keep dressing and enjoying shelter and going out for wood-grilled squid and such, I’ll soon need a job. Actually, that’s not quite how I frame it; quoth Adam Cadre, “Our current economic clusterfuck has led to the predictable call for ‘job creation’: unemployment is skyrocketing, people need jobs, etc. But people don’t need jobs — they need food and shelter and transportation and such.”

Or, perhaps more to the point, quoth Glenn O’Brien: “People now realize that they have to be entrepreneurs, because there are no jobs. If there was a job you wouldn’t want it, because you have to be such a tool to do it.”

So, more simply put, how to get money? Though I have very, very little of the stuff, never have I felt “poor,” per se. In fact, since I try my damndest not to let a day go by without cultivating my store of knowledge or abilities in some way, I feel richer,  in some potential sense, all the time. So what if I gaze upon an eighty-dollar bank account balance one morning? These are, in life’s broader context, the lean years, and one hastens the lean years’ end with each and every bit of practice accomplished and experience accrued.

If anything like a career model emerged (not that I see conducting a career as distinct from living life, but that’s a whole other post) as we chewed our lettuce leaves crammed with kimchi, garlic, various pastes, and tiny sea critters, it was (Marketplace of Ideas guest) Clive James, the polymathic Metropolitan Critic himself. He writes, he broadcasts, he hosts. He moves between various forms of culture “high” and “low” as if he didn’t believe in the distinctions, which I believe he doesn’t. He has many fervent fans and many fervent detractors, which strikes me as a sign of vitality. He can get directly evaluative in a way that would make me feel vulgar, but his opinions change enough over time that I can look the other way.

But I only adapt James’ example to my own life loosely, since we operate on different cultural territories, to say the least. Anyway, if you feel like hiring me to write up an experimental video or a thousand; to shoot short films based on the least filmable of Borges’ short stories; to Podthink; to collect urban field recordings and assemble them in both aesthetic and linguistic patterns; to crank out an article about Oaxacan mole, Los Angeles subway lines and Abbas Kiarostami; or to conduct a cultural conversation of the depth you demand, please feel free. The shingle’s out.

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