The Best Kept Secret on Highway 81
If you find yourself, as I often do, traveling through the Shenendoah mountains of Virginia on Interstate 81, somewhere between famished, starving, and lethargically drooling onto your jacket, I have found the antidote. Our incredible roadside adventure soon became a deviation so magical I expected the Lollipop Guild to come out and serenade me before it was all over.
First off, if you didn’t already know, those without the iphone should learn of a great tool for finding restaurants in a given area. 1-800-GOOG-411 is completely free of charge and most extremely helpful. For example, when you’re 40 miles outside of Roanoke and you want to find out where the nearest Korean restaurant might be, just for kicks, you can call the above number.
Simply say, “Korean Restaurant” into the phone and perhaps, if you are luckier than an inaugeration ticket-holder, one might appear. Complete with phone number and address.
We followed the bread crumbs until we were greeted by a boisterous, heavily accented lady on the phone, who informed us we had to travel past Roanoke, and past Blackburg even, take 460 West and detouring 30 minutes off the main pass, into the tiny town of Pembroke, deep in the Shenendoah Mountain Range. Her name was Connie Kim. Careening farther into Appalachian eternity, we called her a few more times, willing her to talk us out out of our utter disbelief that this rickety mountain road led to anything beyond a boiled peanut stand.
Sure enough, eventually we were led into the Lilliputian outpost of Pembroke, complete with a Liberty gas station, a mechanics garage, a bank, and. . .
Kal-Bee Korean Mart and Restaurant. It looks positively decrepit from the outside, but walking in, I was overwhelmed by trinkets and photos and fake flowers and plastic fruit, knick-knacks everywhere. The knick-knacks were Asian themed and yet, not at all Asian. Rural kitsch and old lady kitsch and Asian kitch too, I think. Only another couple was eating there, and they beamed deeply as we entered and Connie warmly welcomed us with a day-glo-lipsticked grin. The menu is just mindblowing. Apparently, Connie worked at Cracker Barrel for 10 years before moving to Pembroke, and so she opened the restaurant as a hobby, serving generic southern soul food. She quickly became the town’s only restaurant, a high-quality diner with onion rings, cheese sticks, meatloaf and the occasional veggie tempura.
Some of her more adventurous customers suggested she cook up some of the Korean dishes she was always making for her kids in the diner, and so she slowly added a few Korean dishes to the menu, until this unassuming diner became the delectable jewel of Appalachia it is today. The menu now boasts over 17 Korean homecooked dishes. With these dishes, she gets serious. Connie was the only one working that night, and she dutifully brought out wonderfully mild tea with our kim chee and pickled radishes. The place filled up as we were leaving, and Connie’s daughter soon joined her to help out. Both of them knew every customer by name and their usual order.
Connie’s Bim Bim Bop features ginseng root, mountain fern, and lettuce, along with the requisite chopped steak, fried egg and thick and savory red sauce. Her fried dumplings were lightly crisped and tasted superb. The Jap Chae came with overwhelming slabs of tough beef, but she shared with us another customer’s order of Ozingubokum (no idea of sp) which is basically spicy/sweet stirfried squid. This was completely wonderful and challenges any Korean food I’ve tasted in bigger cities.
The best part? After your completely authentic Korean meal, finish it with chocolate cobbler or strawberry shortcake, made from scratch by the one and only Connie.
Washingtonians, Appalachians, Virginia Tech staff and students, and all road-weary travelers should do themselves an enormous favor and stop off in little ole’ Pembroke for a truly ethereal experience. You won’t believe where you are.