Be Done With Your Orientalist Food Reviews: Redemption for Hoban Korean Uptown



On Friday, July 22, City Pages food blogger Mecca Bos renewed my ire regarding her racist food reviews when she posted her tepid, hardly bolstering piece about The Little Mekong Night Market, a wonderful celebration of Asian food and culture in St. Paul’s Asian business and cultural district. This gave me fresh incentive to use part of my summer to finally write more at length about her highly problematic review of Hoban Korea Uptown from last March, a review she unapologetically and staunchly stood by when I informed her that it was upsetting. This makes me think that she knows not of Korean Han. My people have been fighting colonialism for centuries, and will keep doing so in ways large and small.   

To remind, on March 21, 2016 Mecca Bos posted a short piece announcing that Hoban Korea Uptown was now open in Uptown. She provided some basic information about the restaurant and appeared for the most part supportive and not offensive.

When she gave her full review a week later on March 28, 2016, she displayed not only a lack of real knowledge or cultural competence about Korean BBQ, but also portrayed the staff, the patrons, and the place through an offensive, Orientalist lens, while often using a flippant and condescending tone about facets she apparently did not understand about Korean restaurants, culture, and BBQ.  Throughout her write-up she portrayed the entire restaurant like one big, drunk, Orientalist-themed frat party, cutting down what she didn’t understand and objectifying that which struck her as exotic.

Some excerpts from her review include:

“Do: Get drunk. It will help you get on the level of most other people in the room, including the staff. Remember, this is a party, so act accordingly.”

Honestly. Bos makes it sound like Korean BBQ is like some kind of sports bar.  She continues:

“Don’t: Get too attached to any one server. It seems like they are doing things by committee, so you’ll never know if your drink or appetizer order ever got put in until it is delivered to your table, likely a very long time after you’ve ordered it.”

“They are doing things by committee?” Okay. Listen.

  1. They had been open about a week. It is reasonable that they may still be getting their processes down.
  2. If the place is “teeming with diners” as she describes at the onset, that means it is busy.  
  3. It is in no way uncommon for multiple staff to serve you at any restaurant, especially when they are at full house.

As the review progresses, Bos goes on listing grievances that show an ignorance about Korean BBQ, the cost of meat, and a refusal to acknowledge overhead costs in Uptown. She admits the meal includes sides, but then begrudges that she has to cook it herself. 

“Don’t: Expect to get full-on BBQ alone. Each order is about enough meat for one moderately hungry individual, and there is a two-portion minimum per table. If you’re a very hungry group, this adds up to $18.95 to $23.95 per portion. We paid $23.95 for four thin strips of Galbi marinated short ribs, which amounts to about 12 dainty bites of meat. The price does include the banchan, but it’s still pretty expensive considering you’re cooking it yourself.”

Mecca Bos, cooking the meat together and eating it hot off the grill is part of the social dining experience of Korean BBQ.  In this midwest land where it is the most staple of traditions to haul everything outside to fire up the grill to cook meat or pretty much any food, noting that you have to cook it yourself seems just plain petty and ignorant.  More complaints of fairly standard prices for Uptown ensue:

“While other Korean favorites are on offer here, those will cost you as well. Bibimbap is an eye-popping $18.95, and a bulgogi rice noodle bowl and even a simple sweet and sour shrimp dish are both $16.95.”

Her complaints about the prices and the wait time for a popular, new restaurant in generally high-priced Uptown expose the consistent expectation that Asian food be fast and cheap food, often to eat while drunk.  A quick comparison of nearby establishments shows that a small strip steak at an Uptown neighborhood bar like The Lowry will run you $23.95. At the Burch Steakhouse in Uptown with comparable real estate,  a mere 6oz of basic flatiron or sirloin is $21, and 12oz  $42.  An 8oz filet is $67.  Does this food critic not know what good meat costs? Rarely to never in her reviews for a “bistro” or “artisanal” establishment has she shown as much intolerance or unreasonable expectation for the cost of a meal.

Here is the passage in which she basically urges diners to treat fellow patrons and staff as a spectacle side show to accessorize their dining experience.  

“Do: Get an eyeful of each and every thing going on around you. First dates, gay and straight. Big, boozy tables of dude bros, ogling the gorgeous servers. Young guys sitting with old guys. Pretty young things. Throngs and throngs of pretty young things. Rarely have we seen Uptown quite this diverse, quite this urban, quite this beautiful-strange.”

“Beautiful-strange?” Does that not encapsulate Orientalist consumerism in a nutshell? When she describes large tables of drunk “dude bros” lecherously staring at the servers, it does not seem that she has heard of yellow fever— the sexual fetishization of Asian girls and women typically, but also Asian boys and men. She herself seems to have been caught up in the (“beautiful-strange) exoticization of the scene she conjures and the veritable cornacopia of sexual orientations and couplings on display.  This excerpt essentially says add some “foreignness” (not actual foreigners though please) to Uptown’s outdoor mall ambiance, and now it’s a lot more entertaining for the solidly white middle to upper income demographic that inhabit this lakes neighborhood adjacent to former “SunDown Town” Edina in Southwest Minneapolis.

Bos goes on in this theme:

“You alone can know if you’re the sort of person with the strength of will to endure the time, frustration, and expenditure to experience something this altogether novel.”

This makes it sound like you’ve been on a hot, dusty, bumpy bus ride during your foreign tourist adventure to a remote location that is totes worth it because you got some great Instagram of yourself with some authentic local natives.

Bos concludes:

“We’d tell you to wait a few weeks until the kinks get worked out, but we know you won’t. You’re a moth to a flame.”

Like a fetish. “You’re a moth to a flame.” Like a hypnotic desire (or your Orientalist imagination) you know it is ill-advised to succumb, but you. just. cannot. resist.

Mecca Bos, please stop.

Compare Bos’ Hoban review to her considerate and glowing July 18th review of the “casual chic New American” restaurant  Xavi, which she calls the Neighborhood Gem of Diamond Lake. In this review she starts by praising “the handsome homes and manicured lawns that populate the neighborhood.”  She states that “drinks are priced affordably with wine hovering around $9 and beer around $5. This is from the same critic who expects her tacos and ramen to stay cheap and fast and preferably around $5-$7 (more on this in Part 2).  And though the prices of the entrees at Xavi’s “were a bit higher than their comfort zone,” she gently and diplomatically places the onus on her price “comfort zone” rather than fault the restaurant for their high prices.

This is in direct contrast to her complaints about the cost of meat at Hoban, and her advisements that you’ll need to order “filler” food because you won’t get full from the “dainty” bites of meat.  Ironically, Xavi’s “New American” menu includes kalbi (Korean bbq short rib, but they call it marinated hanger steak), served with kimchi and Chinese eggplant, priced at $25 for one serving. While Bos stridently bemoaned the cost of a bowl of meat-filled bimibap or the rice noodle entrees priced between $18.95 and $16.95 at Hoban, a vegetarian or couscous entree at Xavi runs between $24-$21.  It is generally understood also, that restaurants like Xavi are not known for large portion sizes, because we know that prime cuts of meat, like prime real estate, are expensive.

Xavi had been open a full month when Bos reviewed it, and she gave no mention of a waitlist or the “throngs and throngs” of people she described at the newly opened Hoban Uptown. Hoban, however, had been open only about a week at the time of her review, and it was busy enough to have a waitlist. These factors would obviously produce very different dining experiences, yet she was infinitely more forgiving and gracious to the less burdened Xavi for any shortcomings and ended her review with encouraging words and positive expectations for their future. In direct contrast to the drunken exotic thrills and adventures of her “ethnic” experience at Hoban, of Xavi, Bos closed by lovingly stating, “Service could not have been friendlier or more attentive. It’s the kind that makes you feel like you’re in a home and not a business.”  

When I wrote to Mecca Bos in March to voice my upset at her review, I closed with, “I hope you have a retraction or apology or some form of restoration in the works.  Please also educate yourself at length before you attempt to write on topics clearly outside of your knowledge base again.”

In response to my email she said that she saw no problems with her review and “a retraction, apology, or restoration [was] is definitely not in the offing.”  One would think a reporter would want to hear what a Korean had to say about her write-up about Korean food. One would think. 

In closing, I demand once again: Mecca Bos, please learn how to write about our food respectfully and lovingly, or just stick to writing about the white, bourgeois restaurants you clearly do love and respect. Our food is important to us. It is how we show love to each other, it is how we share with each other, it is central to our lives and our people. Remove the Orientalist goggles (and beer goggles for that matter) from your consumerism and critiques of our food. Menu items may be for consumption, but our bodies and our culture are most definitely not.

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3 Responses to Be Done With Your Orientalist Food Reviews: Redemption for Hoban Korean Uptown

  1. Dawn Tomlinson says:

    As a Korean Adoptee who has travelled to Korea and been part of many Korean BBQ experiences, let me say that your writer completely missed the point of Korean BBQ, which has been embraced not only in Korea, but all over the country here in the US.
    She seems to completely miss the point of the side dishes “Banchan”. They are not add-ons, they are part of the meal. Every Korean looks immediately to see which Banchan are served, with great interest.
    There also seems to be a complete bias about the entire experience. I have been to many uptown establishments, with the same wait times, and the same amount of food for much more money than that, and it seems to be an accepted practice. To have more than one server is not an exception, it is the RULE. I just ate at a restaurant in Cannon Falls, where I had two servers and a hostess wait on me at my table. That’s three people, and it’s a small town bar.
    I was completely offended by the off-hand remark about bibimbap, as if it were a side dish. It is a complete meal. To pay that kind of money for a complete meal is very reasonable. It is also a highly valued meal in Korea, where each area serves its own version of the dish. It is a labor-intensive dish, the point of it is how beautifully it is presented as well as how harmonious the ingredients are when mixed together. There was no mention about either of those things.
    There are many examples of how your blogger got it wrong, but most offensive is how biased against Korean food this person seems to be. And how uninformed this blogger is about the point of the Korean BBQ experience. Yes, there is a minimum of two people for BBQ. That is standard practice both here and in Korea. You need two people to justify the cost of the fuel, and that is something that is widely accepted when entering a Korean BBQ. Unnoted is the point of going out for Korean BBQ – it is intended to be a social experience – not to be done otherwise.
    You have to cook your own food? Well, that comment shows, in my mind, the absolute ignorance of Korean BBQ. Does your blogger have any idea how long we have all been waiting for that exact experience???? The fun of Korean BBQ is to cook your own meat!!! The codes, etc. that our metro area has in place has been preventing this for some time. Many of us have been waiting for this to work itself through so that we can have that genuine experience. It seems a retraction, or at the very least, a do-over with a more educated background of the Korean dining culture is in order.

  2. Pingback: City Pages Food Blogger Insists Our Food Should Provide “Real” Minnesotans With Fast, Cheap, Exotic Experiences | tinyprivatejet

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