A spring jaunt through the Appalachians (don't ask) started out unpromisingly, with the
pronouncement decision that a planned detour to Benton's Hams was too far out of the way. In spite of this cruel twist, it turned out to be a fine day for pork. A ravenous descent on an unpromising roadhouse outside of the GSP produced some really solid carnita tacos, and many hours later, I had one of the better Korean meals I've ever had -- in Kentucky.
Along the way, there were some useful insights into the vagaries of finding good food on the road. A Chowhound plea for intel on the unfamiliar route produced zero responses as of getting-in-the car time, and an critical hunger forced us to seek sustenance at the unpromising Rancho Grande, on US-25, near Furman University. There were what appeared to be actual contractor pickups in the lot, a good sign, but also signs promoting Cinco De Mayo, a bad sign. Liquor license = margaritas = another bad sign. The menu had all of the hallmarks of Bad Mexican -- lots of combination dishes, cacti on laminated oversized menus, but we were hungry. In spots like this, my approach is to order a la carte, but the three carnita taco plate did not come with that lake of beans and indifferent rice, so I went with that. With the tacos, the server brought a hot salsa that was a lot more interesting than the Pace-ish stuff on the table. I like to think the salsa upgrade was a response to my hapless but sincere attempts to speak in Spanish. The taquitos themselves were heroic in their restraint -- just bits of roasted pork, some roasted crisp, with a scatter of cilantro and onions. The salsa was a difference-maker, but it was tasty enough plain.
The cinetrix had a mushroom quesadilla that was serviceable, and from the looks of the tables around us, we avoided a lot of very bad food.
The Kentucky Korean Miracle was more of a rabbit out of a hat situation. I recently treated myself to a phone that actually works. I have not read the manual yet, but it has some sort of rudimentary Internet, and the cinetrix amused herself with testing its food finding capabilities as I drove. Cincinnati was our dining target, and a search by cuisine garnered a bewildering array of choices, with no cues on how to narrow it down. I dimly recalled that a former student from Cincinnati made a point of eating Korean whenever she went home, and I had a vague idea that it might be near the airport. The phone was able to tell us which of the three was closest to the airport, which turned out to be the Riverside Korean Restaurant, in Covington, KY. This was my first experience with Korean cuisine in Bluegrass country, so I had my antennae out. It was small, (good) crowded (good) had the authentic low tables (could go either way). Overall, I got a vibe that we were in good hands.* We started with Yang Nyum Du Bu (Pan fried tofu topped with dried seaweed & house sauce.) Solid. For mains, cinetrix had the Yuk Hwe (Seasoned fresh raw beef garnished with garlic, pine nuts, Korean pear, and egg yolk) because she will order raw beef whenever it is available. I had Doe Ji Bul Go Gi (Grilled, spicy marinated slices of pork.) The name does not do it justice. If I had to guess the cut, it was shoulder, but it was tender, and just on the right side of bacon. I think of it often. All of this happened in Kentucky. Had I seen it first, I would have known immediately, but the most compelling statement of this places total money-ness was in the hall on the way to the restrooms. Casually leaning against the wall were vitrines with bats and balls signed by Chan-Ho Park and Byung-Hung. Kim. This is, admittedly a limited metric, but for Korean restaurants within a cab ride of major league parks, evidence of visits by actual Korean ballplayers is probably a reasonable guarantee of a good meal.
There is not a lesson I can extract from this as a general guiding principle. We were lucky both times, as both meals certainly could have been disasters. But as Joaquin Andujar was fond of saying, "youneverknow."
*The bar, next door, where we had drinks, less so. It is named Deadwood, and has a western theme. It was about 6 on a Friday and pretty quiet, but the bartender was telling another customer that the place "gets crazy on Saturday nights" when "the girls get up on the bar and dance." I noticed that the place seemed brand new, and that the bar seemed unusually wide. I asked, and indeed, they had made the bar extra wide to facilitate dancing. Perhaps the lamest discovery of 07, and it leaves me too dispirited even to do an image search for a picture of Maria Bello.