By Ashley Chong
I went over the phrases I would say in Korean, double-checking for any blatant errors in how I addressed the owner or how I pronounced the words. But when it was my turn to order, my carefully constructed phrases were instantly replaced with nostalgia when I suddenly noticed the row of pastries behind the ordering counter.
Red bean buns, green tea sticks, milk buns, cream buns and my favorite: soboro bread. Immediately I remembered how my family would stock up on Asian pastries. We rarely had them accessible to us, so whenever we found soboro bread, we’d grab enough for breakfast. All the practiced professionalism flew out the window as I eagerly pointed at the soboro bread. I instinctively called it “soboro ppang” (ppang means bread in Korean), and the Korean woman looked up, slightly confused.
“Are you Korean?” she asked cautiously. I nodded, and excitedly said in Korean that it was my favorite type of pastry. Her eyes lit up. She slipped into her mother tongue and started up a brief conversation as she wrapped the ppang for me. When she handed it over, she also took out a small cookie and said that it was “servicesuh” (in Korea, servicesuh are freebies that restaurants or stores give out to establish a relationship and make a good impression on their customers). I bowed as I thanked her in Korean and she did likewise, wishing me a good day.
Iowa City now has three Korean restaurants, including Le Gourmet, until recently known as Tic Tac Toe, which of the three is the only to offer Asian pastries. The shop’s location is ideal, as it is by Iowa City’s bus interchange and one of the first places people see as they get off the bus. The Korean owners have brought a different angle to the store. They slightly changed the menu, adding in a mango smoothie with bubbles and other items, and showcased Asian pastries behind the counter.
It didn’t take long for the Korean community to discover Le Gourmet. When I sent out a group chat to my Korean friends to tell them about the store, some of them had already tried the pastries. As I talked to other Koreans, even if they hadn’t tried the pastries yet, they knew about the store. They talked to the owners in Korean comfortably, as it was one of the few places they could speak in their mother tongue.
What, exactly, is the phenomenon of Le Gourmet? It is where a businessman can grab a breakfast, a student in Hawkeye gear can order a quick lunch, a Korean person can try pastries from home, and a Korean language student can try ordering in Korean. I hope that as more American customers try the Asian pastries and as more Korean language students visit the store maybe they’ll want to know how to make the pastry and then they’ll find a video of a Korean cooking show and then they’ll discover Korea. And when they trace their interest back, it will all start at Le Gourmet with a taste of Korea in the shape of a pastry.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 204.