What it’s like to fly right now and eat in Koreatown.
After four months of lockdown in our two bedroom condo in Minneapolis, my wife and I finally broke down and decided it was time to fly East to see our kids and parents for a summer vacation.
During those four months, we dreamed of our favorite Koreatown hangouts in NYC – Kunjip (the oldest and, in our view, the best Korean restaurant), karaoke bars and cute pastry shops. It had probably been the longest amount of time we had gone without a meal at K-town.
To minimize our risks of becoming infected during our travel, we reviewed all the airline Covid policies and found that Delta was committed to restricting first class capacity to 50% and 60% for economy. Middle seats would remain empty. The fares were also the lowest we’d ever seen, so we decided to splurge on $425 first class tickets to LaGuardia.
Our checklist for a safe flight included double masks, loads of hand sanitizer, disposable gloves, and a bag full of snacks as we had heard there would be no food service on the planes. It turned out that bottled water and snack boxes were offered throughout the trip and (to our chagrin) alcohol service would begin the very next day.
Our first flight this year also meant our first Uber ride. We figured the extra space in an UberXL would help with air circulation and were relieved when our driver showed up masked and with car windows open.
The airport was a ghost town. They still had a TSA pre-check line but all lines were short and fast moving. Almost everyone we saw was masked and keeping a safe distance.
Waiting at the gate was not the worst but certainly was not a study in 6 feet apart. One older gentleman showed up with no mask and was promptly given one at the gate while the rest of us gave him disapproving looks.
We didn’t want to be seated too close to the bathrooms on the plane, so we had selected seats that were at the halfway point in the first class section, and true to their policy, only half the seats were filled. All was good until the gentleman who was given a mask at the gate proceeded down the aisle and sat directly behind us. Ugh…
Using my selfie cam, I noticed it had taken about 30 seconds for the gentleman to pull down his mask and soon he was happily relaxing in his seat with his mask covering only his beard instead of his mouth and nose.
I pressed the button for the flight attendant but had no luck getting anyone’s attention. After the seat belt signs were off, I walked over and discussed the issue with an attendant and the matter was resolved quickly with a gentle reminder to the man. I had not considered that even the best policies are usually soon followed by policy breakers.
In our minivan UberXL from LaGuardia to the Upper East Side, we noted that our masked driver had installed a plastic curtain to separate the front seats from the passengers’ seats. We glanced at each other approvingly and enjoyed the shortest, traffic-free trip to the city we ever had.
The next morning we drove down to K-town to check out for ourselves what had happened to this once bustling city block that used to be pulsing 24/7 every day of the year. The last we had heard, restaurants and stores were boarded up to protect against looters and small business owners were struggling to survive the lockdown by doubling down on take outs and deliveries.
Imagine our surprise turning onto 32nd street to find that life had returned to our beloved K-town! Much of the street had been transformed or were in the process of being transformed into makeshift outdoor dining areas with masked wait staff and happy diners mingling at a safe distance between each other. Not quite the packed crowd shoulder to shoulder that used to rule this street, but a decent number of people nonetheless.
I later learned that there had been 22 or so streets in Manhattan that were allowed to be turned into outdoor dining areas, and K-town was one of those streets. Was so happy to learn that news!
At Kunjip we had a wonderful meal of galbi followed by cold and delicious naengmyun and nearly cried when we saw Mrs. Lee the owner rush over to greet us, so happy that we had come out of lockdown for a visit. Normally she’d be leisurely chatting with customers at table after table but today she was doing everything from helping take orders to preparing the lunch deliveries.
For the hour or so while we ate and enjoyed our beloved K-town, the experience was exactly the heaven we had imagined for four months.
It’s eery to see NYC so quiet, but life is definitely coming back. From our short conversation with Kunjip sajangnim, it’s been a heartbreakingly tough four months. As if plunging revenues and the threat of looters weren’t enough, some landlords were actually trying to raise rents in this climate. A final blow that will certainly shutter many struggling K-town establishments.
As our summer vacation in NY begins, we are able to at least breathe a sigh of relief having seen the resurrection of our beloved K-town. And even if Covid forces NYC into a second or third lockdown, we know that the resilience of both K-town and its small business owners will prevail. K-town fighting!!