Jul 24, 2005
Rude Food. Live Octopus Tentacles. The Prince. Los Angeles, CA.
The Prince. Los Angeles, CA.
Not too long ago, when the world was a much more innocent place, my pigtailed, little sister came across the only golden egg at the annual neighborhood Easter egg hunt. This gilded egg lay cleverly camouflaged in the crook of a felled tree’s branches. Baby (that’s my sister’s nickname) was the sole contestant to spot the winning egg and was very thrilled. At that point in her life the only contest she had won was the second grade’s Arbor Day essay contest. Her triumphant entry “Oaks are oak-ay!” fetched her a cheap, flame-retardant, blue ribbon that read “1st Place”. Baby, however, didn’t get to keep that ribbon for very long because my younger brother and I figured out a way to make that flame-retardant ribbon flame-able in short time. But on that Easter morning her prize for winning the egg hunt was no simple dyed blue rag. Rather, it was a tiny, yellow, puff of a baby chick. And it was love at first sight. My sister cradled her new feathered friend while caressing its fuzzy wisps. Then, perhaps from an overwhelming sense of foreboding, she named her fluffy bird “Lucky”, hoping that by doing so it would protect the tiny chick somehow. And certainly she did this because my younger brother and I were standing right behind her, breathing asthmatically like Lord Vader. The incident of the burning blue ribbon happened years prior and my younger brother and I had since moved beyond pyromania to bigger and badder things; this fact however seemed to be of no comfort to my sister. She shot us a vicious look then cupped Lucky like a football and extended her arms as far away from her two big brothers as possible.
Lucky lived without a care in a large cooped up area on the side of our house. Lucky’s diet was the family’s leftovers e.g. rice and vegetables. Lucky thrived and grew up from a chirpy, mini cotton ball into an impressive specimen of a rooster with a massive V-breast, terrible talons and the rest. Once in a while we were treated to some real life nature drama when Lucky would swoop on a millipede, snatching it from the dirt and gulping it segment by segment down his sizeable throat. Lucky was even a bit of a lady’s man and had a couple of hen girlfriends who provided my family with some heavenly fresh eggs every morning. Lucky was literally the cock of the walk to us.
Further, Lucky wasn’t just the family’s millipede slayer but our alarm clock too. Early every morning he would let us know that it was sunrise. And he wouldn’t stop letting us know for about an hour give or take. Lucky was so generous with his wake up calls, in fact, he’d also let our neighbors know that it was time to rise and shine whether they wanted to or not. He woke lots of our neighbors — about a square mile's worth of neighbors. And soon after, the homeowner association mailed us a brief note that amounted to a one-way ticket out of the neighborhood for Lucky. But where could we possibly send him?
My mother had an idea where and she wasn’t about to let my sister
There is a controversial school of thought that says if you eat meat, you should know where it comes from and how it gets to your dinner table. Our culture of convenience shields most of us from the realities of how the meat we eat is raised and processed. However, it's not clear whether this notion carries the ultimate agenda of turning consumers off to eating meat altogether or simply encouraging folks to appreciate the creatures that nourish them.
Well, if that’s the case, why stop there? Why not really get to know your food. You know, like the lions do when they take down a wildebeest. What is it really like to tear chunks of flesh off of an animal that is still alive and fighting for its life? Do you feel the warm muscle coursing hot blood as it throbs down your throat? Do you get the occasional whack to the side of the head from a flaying leg during a death throe? Do you appreciate your food more? Does it taste better? Is feasting on dying wildebeest like having really, really, really fresh beef carpaccio or steak tartare? Is it like picking your own lobster from the tank at your favorite seafood restaurant only better because you can just crack her right open on the spot and tuck into the sweet succulence that is lobster flesh?
Could it be that this prospect is just too messy and upsetting for us humans to handle? Then it’s a good thing there aren’t any restaurants out there willing to do live food.
Or is there?
The Prince is a peculiar restaurant much like Michael Jackson is a peculiar individual. This is not to say that The Prince resembles anything close to Neverland Ranch or Chuck E. Cheese’s for that matter. It is to say that The Prince gives new meaning to the word eccentric. Michael Jackson is neither “black or white”; he’s “stuck in between.” The Prince is also quite ambiguous and defies you to neatly categorize it. Residing in the historic Windsor Hotel in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, The Prince is stodgy and kitschy at the same time. It is an unconscious homage to timeless steakhouses and The Haunted Mansion. It’s seedy and classy. If there’s something strangely familiar about The Prince, then you may recall Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway here in a scene from the noir classic “Chinatown” where this location doubled as the legendary Brown Derby.
However, the food at The Prince pays tribute to something entirely different.
Popular for its Korean bar snacks, The Prince also pushes an odd assortment of dishes ranging from the restaurant’s crowd pleasing fried chicken to sea snails cooked various ways. The Prince, however, has a culinary dark side. At the end of the heavy bound menu near the bottom of the page are a couple of secret items known only to those who can decipher the Korean script. Are you one of those who wish you could sample something from the non-English menus in Asian eateries? Well, if you are, be careful what you wish for. Acting on a tip from a Deep End Dining reader, I scanned the menu for the live octopus tentacles he recommended. Not seeing it right away, I noticed other intriguing yet suspect items like sautéed silk worms. Then, believing that I spotted my quarry on the menu, I asked the waiter if the “raw octopus tentacles” listed on the page were also live tentacles. He shook his head no and guided me to the back of the menu then pointed to the Korean words. Here is where the live tentacles are found.
He asked stoically, “Are you sure you want that?”
I shot back, “Absolutely.”
I have never been more excited anticipating an exotic dish because I knew this one was going to be extraordinary. Ever since my brother Warren told me about his live tentacles experience years ago in Japan, I’ve been dreaming about the day I’d have live tentacles squirming in my mouth. (Yeah, I know, these Lin kids are batty. Mmmm, bat.)
A couple of soju shooters later, the waiter returned and unceremoniously set a plate in the center of the table catching me and Diane off guard. Some time was needed to register what we were viewing. The sight was uncanny. It was ridiculous and sublime. Both comic and tragic like Greek theatre masks. "What fresh hell is this?" Extremely fresh hell, evidently.
The raging plate of squirming, writhing and willful baby octopus tentacles awed us. If I was the Greek hero Perseus, then this plate before me was the severed head of Medusa the Gorgon with her locks of seething, slithering serpents. Hyperbole? How about understatement. Much like Medusa’s disembodied head, these tentacles still believed they were alive — the limbs attached to a phantom body. Diane’s head spun in a figurative way but bordered on literal. Her brain signals and emotions were cross firing so dramatically that she was laughing, gagging, hyperventilating and sobbing all in the same breath. I offered her the first taste but she replied, “When hell freezes over.” This I interpreted as a “no”.
You have to understand Diane had the wrong perspective on this whole thing. She saw the tentacles as half-dead and I saw them as half-alive. It's all how you see things.
So with a firm grip on my chopsticks I grabbed the first…hmmph, okay…let me start again. So with a firm grip on my chopsticks I grabbed the…alright, just a second…I grabbed my chopsticks and nabbed the first tenta…damnit!!
I was experiencing some technical tentacle difficulties.
You see, one doesn’t grab live tentacles. They grab you. And they grab the plate and the sauce dish and the slices of garlic. In fact, the suckers suction on to anything they contact. If you are able to dip the tentacle into any of the three escorting sauces (a chili paste with raw thinly sliced garlic and jalapeno peppers or the pink, sweet and spicy sauce or a salt and pepper vinegar), then, congratulations, you cleared the first hurdle. Now try getting the thing to come off your chopsticks and into your mouth. This is not a passive piece of toro sashimi we’re talking about. This is an entity that does not want to be eaten alive, dead or otherwise. This is, perhaps, even a thing that would happily take you down with it if it were big enough.
This food hates you and what you did to it!
In every scenario I played out in my imagination as far as eating this dish was concerned, I predicted nothing more than a brief slimy struggle then stillness — the last words of an insignificant creature low on the food chain. Silly me. I could not have underestimated my dinner more because once in my mouth, the tentacle went into attack mode and suctioned on to my teeth, tongue and bottom lip making it nearly impossible for me to manipulate my mouth in order to eat it. My dinner was instinctively trying to preserve its own life while attempting to take mine by asphyxiating me. Needless to say, I was just a little mortified by all this. It was—how would you call it—*bleepin’* freaky!!! And if that wasn’t enough, the tentacle then launched phase two of Operation Indigestion and began to whip itself about in a frenzy like it was krump dancing. In my mouth was the mollusk version of the Tasmanian Devil, ferociously flaying at the roof of my mouth and gums. I could not believe it. The feisty, little shit was kind of hurting me. I snapped out of the absolute stunned trauma of having to fight with my food and attempted to regain control of the situation. Overpowering the tentacle with my tongue and with a little assist from my fingers, I pried the wicked thing from my gums and teeth. At last the tentacle became vulnerable to my molars. Without hesitating, I bit hard on it over and over and over again while mumbling “Die! Die! Die!” Before it could resurrect itself and do a surprise attack like some slasher movie villain, I swallowed deeply and gulped it down. “Get in my belly!” I gasped.
The dust finally settled. After all that, how does live octopus tentacle taste? A little like fury fused with fear. Spicy and garlicky because of the sauce. If you are an especially demented diner, then live octopus tentacles erupt with the flavor of schadenfreude where any gastronomic joy is derived from the creature's (or a part of the creature's) misery. There is no aftertaste but there are aftereffects. (Just don’t think about what the tentacle might be doing in your stomach.) Almost devoid of any flavor, it doesn’t taste a thing like cooked squid and nowhere near fried calamari. The tentacles are highly viscous, more resembling mucous. As far as attitude, it’s the meanest and rudest piece of food I have ever brawled with. And this was only the first piece.
Diane handed me another shot of soju. It promised to be a long night.
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