When Ajumma sent me a text message asking me to call her, I was worried that there was an emergency. I had eaten at her and Ahjussi’s South U. restaurant, Rich J.C., for eighteen years, but had never received a call or a text from her before.
Ajumma and Ahjussi are Korean for Mrs. and Mr., but they also mean “aunt” and “uncle,” and that’s how I knew them—as my elders, I never addressed them by name. When I talked to Ajumma that evening, I found out that they were retiring and had sold their business. She wanted me to know so my husband and I could stop by before they left at the end of April. Many months, we ate there once a week.
Eighteen years of being greeted with a wave, a warm smile, and “Ahn-young-ha-sae-yo” (hello in Korean). Eighteen years of the thick, pungent aroma of kimchi filling the air. Whether it was a hot summer day, bitterly cold winter night, or anything in between, this space always welcomed me with exactly what my belly and hungry soul needed: home cooked jjigaes (stews) and conversations I couldn’t have anywhere else. Two hundred and sixteen months. Still, when I heard the news, it wasn’t enough.
I recall the years when it was pretty empty, with only four or five customers for dinner. Now, there is a line out the door—from college kids to families. We learned to go during off hours to guarantee a spot at the counter. It’s been truly amazing to see this space grow into a big family.
Their kimchi jjigae is typically served with ramen and pork, but I would order it without the noodles or meat. The kimchi and the soup were like nothing I had tasted, yet at the same time tasted like everything I knew. The spicy, savory, and salty flavors hit my tongue all at once, even in a small spoonful, and I’d keep going back for more. The piping hot jjigae continues to bubble until the last drop is left. It’s exactly how my Umma (Mom) makes jjigae at home: I was taught that it’s not Korean until it’s boiling hot.
Some of my other favorites are their dolsot (stone bowl) bibimbap with generous amounts of different kinds of fresh namuls (vegetables and greens) and a perfect thin layer of nurungji (scorched rice) at the bottom of the bowl that you mix with gochujang, a runny egg, and those delicious namuls. I also love their seafood soon-tofu, which was full of rich flavor and a precise portion of silky tofu. My husband’s favorite is their yukgaejang (spicy beef soup). The soup is both spicy and earthy from the gosari (bracken fiddlehead) and of course boiling hot. It has plenty of broth, so it’s not only meat and gosari which we appreciate. And of course, our beloved chewy, homey ttokbokki (spicy rice cakes), our staple with every meal.
Even when we would order takeout, which we often did, when Ajumma picked up the phone, she knew what we wanted before I could begin. She knew my voice. She knew Leo’s voice. In the last weeks I ate there, I ate my favorite jjigae the way most customers do—with meat and ramen—and realized that I had missed out.
Much as I’ve enjoyed these dishes for the past almost two decades, it was more than the food that kept me going back. It was the atmosphere of love and acceptance that was experienced through how they greeted each customer, how many college students with their giant backpacks would come in to eat, and the faint Christian music that would play in the background on most days.
Between growing up in a Korean Christian church and my experiences of church in recent years, I try to avoid religious spaces when I can. But Rich J.C. is not a church, and the care Ajumma and Ahjussi had for their customers and the heart they put into every single dish felt like being loved unconditionally. Theirs was the kind of church I had longed for. Even the counter-only seating makes it feel like anyone can go there without judgment: It doesn’t matter if you came alone.
Ajumma and Ahjussi never asked once why Leo and I don’t have kids, even after they’d known us for years. This took me by surprise and it still does, because most older Koreans would ask without reservation. And because they didn’t ask, somehow, we felt accepted: They never treated us differently, nor did they ever act like they were sorry for us. They treated the two of us like any other family.
Ajumma asked how teaching was going, how my parents were doing, and we would exchange family stories. She was always someone I could speak Korean with, and when my vocabulary was lacking, she understood anyway. I had the privilege of hearing stories about their kids, from when they graduated college to her son getting married. She even talked to me about God, and, coming from her, I believed her. To me, Ajumma and Ahjussi were true examples of what it means to love and care for people.
At Rich J.C, I was able to connect with my Korean heritage in a way that was unexpected. The kindness that was showered on us brought a healing I didn’t know I needed. Ajumma and Ahjussi reminded me of what I missed, what I truly longed for, and what it means for your soul to be fed.
What this family gave me will leave me hungry for more.
Restaurants are often spaces of home for many Asian Americans. Whether it’s eating food that tastes like home, hearing the sounds of language that isn’t English, or seeing Ajummas and Ahjussis who resemble our family members, a noisy, crowded restaurant is often where we find solace and peace.
I am grateful that Rich J.C. will continue to be Rich J.C., a Korean restaurant. Change is hard no matter what, but there is also beauty in what’s to come. I know things might change, as they should to reflect the new owners’ vision. While my feelings are bittersweet, I remain hopeful and happy for the new owners and am eager to witness how this beloved space will continue to nurture those who gather there.