Putting aside all of the snide comments about our abrupt nature here in the Garden State, terrible roads, high property taxes, and status as the worst place to get COVID-19 (#1 in Deaths/1M population in the world), New Jersey is a very interesting place to live. We wear our “Most Hated” badge with a certain sense of pride. We can’t vaccinate our population worth a damn, but we do make a better cheesesteak than Pennsylvania, rule the pizza world, love our mobsters, and gave the world Frank, Bruce, Whitney, Bon Jovi, and Sarah Vaughn.
The Atlantic Ocean is our backyard. I can’t reach out and touch it but I’m blessed to run down to the edge of my street and look at this each morning as I run.
I stand in its cold waters and cast into the sea. Not one body from Brooklyn yet.
Shore life hasn’t always been easy. Sandy put us out of commission for months and forever changed how homes are built. Beach communities survive on revenue from tourists and sales taxes collected from bustling restaurants and the plethora of live music venues that make all of the towns from the Atlantic Highlands through Cape May vibrant.
There has been none of that for over a year.
It’s the kind of place where Bruce Springsteen walks through the back door of a local bar in Asbury Park and plays a set for free because he’s a townie. He may reside up the road in Rumson and live the lifestyle of his Wall Street neighbors, but the Boss crafted his finest work in a tiny rental on a quiet street in Long Branch.
Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. sounded a tad catchier than the alternative.
Asbury Park, New Jersey, has been a city for almost 125 years and finds itself at a bit of a crossroads in 2021. We may live 5 minutes up the road in the Syrian Jewish Riviera, but AP is our home; our cultural and emotional home.
The city has a long and somewhat controversial history; amusement parks, religious communities, high crime, race riots, mobsters, world famous music venues, and one of the most politically active LGBTQ+ communities in N. America.
It is also a city with a stark racial divide. You see it. You know it exists.
But you just pay your parking electronically and look for a place to eat; the pandemic has done more damage to the cultural fabric of the community than any other event in the past 5 decades.
The beach crowds came back in 2020 before the 2nd wave slammed into New Jersey starting in September (22,000 dead and counting), and I sit alone in the bitter cold a few mornings each week (I will not sit in one of the ridiculous outdoor bubbles) sipping my hot coffee after a grueling 4 mile run.
Gone are a number of local bars, record stores, and small restaurants that have made the town such an integral part of my life since 2008.
With my record store gone, it’s not the same place.
The Stone Pony and Paramount Theater remain dark.
One food establishment that has survived the pandemic, is a fast-food Korean restaurant that began its life many years ago as a pop-up on the Asbury Park Boardwalk.
MOGO is not your traditional Korean eatery; it shares nothing in common with the traditional Korean BBQ restaurants that are more popular in Fort Lee and has built up a healthy clientele serving its Korean fusion tacos, fried chicken wings, and Boki cheesesteak sandwiches.
The Jae Yook Bokkeum (pork) and Bulgogi (beef) tacos are especially good and can also be ordered as a burrito with kimchi fried rice. Pork doesn’t enter my body, but I’ve had the beef more than a few times and it’s a satisfying combination with a nice crunch from the taco and an average level of heat.
If you love the traditional cheesesteak sandwich that is popular in both neighboring Philadelphia and all across Jersey, the Boki will be a more flavorful twist; it features a spicy marinated rib-eye, sauteed peppers and onions, and cotija cheese with a side of potato salad.
After a day of record shopping, it really hits the spot. MOGO makes a homemade Asian pear hot sauce that compliments the meat really well and is quite spicy.
The Korean fried chicken wings are both meaty and quite hot if you go for the Buffalo Kimchi or spicy glaze. Messy beyond and I’ve managed to use 10 wet naps with each serving.
It’s almost hard to believe that Parasite won the Best Picture Oscar in 2020 and became the first foreign film to take home that honor. With so few films to select from for the 2021 Academy Awards which have been delayed, they might as well give the Korean dark comedy another look – I’ve actually seen more than a dozen new eligible films at my local AMC since September, and nothing has really been that spectacular.
The Last Shift was a surprising little film that resonated and more proof that you don’t need to spend $250 million to make a decent film.
Criterion Collection’s 4K transfer of Parasite is the version to own and while the film holds up well with repeated viewings, I still find it odd that this was the film to put Korean cinema on the map with N. American audiences finally.
Director Bong Joon-Ho has been delivering some of the best South Korean films for a number of years; The Host and Mother are well worth owning and far more interesting than anything coming out of Hollywood.
But my list has to begin with Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance if we’re going to get serious about South Korean cinema.
Oldboy is a very dark and stylistic film that best introduces the South Korean aesthetic, and it is one of those rare films that transcends any language barriers. Choi Min-sik delivers such an offbeat and strong physical performance that it’s become a cult film. While not a film to watch during any COVID lockdown with the kids on a Sunday afternoon, it’s a disturbing tale of punishment and psychological revenge that will leave a long lingering aftertaste – and that’s probably why I’d say stick with the Korean chicken wings.
The snow has finally begun to fall in our horrible winter of discontent, but remember that there’s nothing an order of 12 Korean fried chicken wings, a bowl of kimchi fried rice, and 3 Boylan’s Creamy Red Birch Beers can’t fix. Aside from war, pandemics, cancel culture, and 54 years and counting of futility for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Never said anything about any miracles.