Cafe Naha is that most sought after of Seoul restaurant experiences – a very near-to-truth facsimile of a desirable, faraway place. The swaying palms, the relaxed island feels, the lack of 답답해, the very Korean expression describing uncomfortable situations fraught with inescapable, unmentionable social obligations and pressures – in a very real way, Okinawa is the antidote to the every day life of Korea’s young, disillusioned, and usually quite stylishly dressed.
In its dishes, Cafe Naha has the authenticity everyone craves but without any of the requisite social sandbags caused by a white guy making Oaxacan cuisine. But what is authenticity and what do we mean when we proclaim something as being so? Is the person wrong when they claim a Chicago Thai restaurant’s atmosphere wasn’t “authentic” because he/she wasn’t sitting on a blue plastic stool?
Authenticity is a spectrum, and as long as folks aren’t ultimately equating “authenticity” with cheapness or establishing a socioeconomic order (through appropriating a cuisine without attribution or the respect due to its traditions) or creating a culturally-based hierarchy of prestige (French > Indian because of the socioeconomic statuses of those countries, etc.), we should likely be a little more judicious in our outrage when we see the word “authentic” in use. Also, writers, those who are serious when writing about food and tend to write too many lengthy paragraphs, should use the word “authentic” a lot less (myself being exempt from this, of course ^^) and only in reference to the rightful idea of the dish where it originated from. That is, for example, haggis is haggis as it is widely understood in Scotland.
Despite all of this, the word “appropriation” is a separate debate and probably the more loaded term compared to “authentic”. Nothing at Cafe Naha is “appropriation” in the damaging sense because a) it stays true to the original and b) doesn’t further marginalize an already marginalized group. You could also think of it as the long arm of Japanese colonialism still reaching out, but to do that and to strictly think that way would be to take all of the fun out of eating anything, ever.
In that sense, I don’t think any Japanese cook will show up, cleaver in hand, because the idea of the authentic, at least in this situation, is so far removed from the original. Taco rice was a result of the American occupation of Okinawa, a plate of smashed-up hard-shell taco, ground beef, shredded cheddar and iceberg on top of rice. Now, it’s being made and consumed by young Koreans with a heartfelt affection for Japan (or at least Japanese things), a country that once colonized Korea. What a crazy mixed-up food world we live in!
I’m not sure how much about Cafe Naha is specifically Okinawan (except for said taco rice) but everything I’ve tried here has been a spot-on representation of washoku or Japanese-influenced western food. Although I’ve yet to see a gratin or a chicken nanban, a lot of the greatest hits are being played with aplomb at Cafe Naha.
It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it sort of location, on the second floor of a slightly grungy building that houses the popular ZeroPerZero design store on the first floor. A sign is virtually nonexistent, limited to a plaque at the entrance to an uninviting staircase. I was only tipped off to the place because of the strange blue-and-red glow emanating from its frosted-glass windows. I knew Cafe Naha existed in the area but out of laziness never bothered to actually search for it on a map. As it turned out, I had walked past it any number of times having been only passively curious of its location. Learn from my mistakes, readers.
Another piece of crucial advice I can dole out – don’t go to Naha on the verge of hanger, that Jekyll/Hyde state when hunger makes one moody to the point of committing felonious acts. The food here usually comes out…at it’s own pace. Aim for taking a third date or a friend you haven’t seen for a while. It’s as much of a cafe (ahem) as it is a restaurant which does a bit to excuse its slowness. Take a sip of island time in the form of a Suntory highball or Okinawan Orion beer. Just as the restaurant isn’t in much of a hurry, it’s also glad to shut down early due to being out of ingredients, a nuclear fallout-level event that’s happened to me at least twice when showing up around 8pm.
Also, the menu changes occasionally so don’t write me with tears of anger that mentaiko yakisoba wasn’t on the menu. If it is, however, that should be the first thing on your order. Yakisoba with the only slightly briny cured cod roe attaching themselves to the noodles like stealthy symbiotes of flavor. A dollop of kewpie mayo and pickled red ginger sit on the side for dragging your noodles through or mixing directly into the hot yakisoba mess. Those of you accustomed to American-style hibachi’s white sauce coma knows that this is the move, the one and only, with the mayonnaise congealing in an almost cheese-like manner to the seductive carbs.
The katsu sando here also must rank as one of the best in the city. It’s an unapologetic slab of pork loin, like a comedic-violent Beat Takeshi slap to the back of the head, still rosy pink in the center and crispy-crunch of the outside. The bread is just right. Not too soft and actually just a bit stale or toasted, anything to remove some moisture so that your bite doesn’t instantly become stuck to the roof of your mouth. On the edge of the plate is a reserve of nose-thumping mustard that needs to be applied to every bite.
The Okinawan pan steak comes spitting and spewing grease like a vengeful bovine volcano. The steak is sumptuous, especially if, like me, you eat beef very rarely as both a nod to the environment but more so just because it costs so damn much here. The cut of beef is hanwoo chuck tail flap, sitting in the sweet spot of price, texture, and taste for real peasant luxury.
Other standards are also on offer like omurice with demi-glace, taco rice, keema curry, minced pork cutlet, and karaage, but sadly, the potato salad is no more. Seriously, whenever you see potato salad on a Japanese menu, go for it. It’s always surprising and delightful how a place will interpret the simple combination of potatoes and a binding agent (usually mayonnaise).
Tickets to Okinawa are about $300 USD from Seoul. A trip to Cafe Naha is a much more attainable goal for well-executed Japanese interpretations of Western food standards made by Korean people. The authenticity debate is a mouthful and at Cafe Naha, one you’ll want to swallow.