On many a drive down 81 from Staunton to Roanoke I’ve often thought, I should check out Fancy Hill Korean Diner. Even before I went to Korea, the sign intrigued me for two main reasons. One, the two words, “Korean” and “Diner,” seem unexpected. I won’t say “juxtaposed,” but that is more in line with my thought process. Two, Fancy Hill is off of I-81 on exit 180A, the same exit you take to get to the Virginia Safari Park and Foamhenge. Clearly, at one point in time it was “Fancy Hill Diner” (being a diner located in an area known as “Fancy Hill”). But, how a Korean restaurant came to be there, I don’t know. I marvel and am confused at how most of the Korean restaurants I find are in the middle of nowhere Virginia. Sometimes, nowhere West Virginia. If anyone knows why this is, please let me know.
With all the background in place, the theme of this post, sadly, is a type of unrequited food quest. I really miss Korean food. It has been three months since my Korean adventure, and I miss the food. I miss the spice. I miss the newness. I miss squishy tteok and sensational kimchi and tasty shabu shabu. Honestly, I miss it all. So, on this particular road trip, the drive of nostalgia outweighed the drive to get back to Staunton. Thus, I finally tried to Fancy Hill Korean Diner.
I really, really wanted to like the place. I was all set to like the place. Urbanspoon has positive reviews on it. The wallpaper covered with Korean script gave me hope. The waitress was really sweet and helpful. She smiled and giggled at my attempt to say “ka sa mi da.” The owner and cook seemed pleasant and friendly.
But. . . .
The menus categories included “Appetizers,” “Korean Tour,” “Japan Tour,” “China Tour,” and “America Tour.” Although a clever word trick, for me the subtext is an unwillingness to fully commit to being a Korean restaurant. On the “China Tour,” you get the big names of Lo Mein, Beef and Broccoli, and General Choi (their spelling). Japan provides Teriyaki in three meat flavors, and America provides cheese steaks, chicken wings (sans ranch and celery), hamburgers, and grilled chicken. Given the clientele potential of kids pouring out of stuffy, Safari-feed bedecked cars, this combination of cuisine is probably a safe bet.
For someone who desperately wanted real Korean food like tteok or kimichi soup or gochujang, the menu was a dream of real Korean food bubble buster.
In all fairness, the Korean options sound really good. They offer Gal-bi (beef short ribs), several Bul-gogi (grill) options, and Bibim-bap (a bowl fare in either cold or hot stoneware). I, loftly, went with the Squid Bul-gogi, which, also in all fairness, was not bad. The squid was tender as squid is going to be, came sizzling on a cast iron skillet/plate, and had a spicy brown sauce that was somewhat teriyaki driven.
The catch is, it wasn’t what it could be. Or, more specifically, it wasn't what I wanted it to be. Even the kimchi, a pale red, seemed to be shadow of kimchi glory.
Everyone else in the restaurant looked happy and enjoyed their dishes with enthusiasm. Me, I put on a good front of being happy enough and pleased enough. Sitting in Fancy Hill Korean Diner, I thought about what is must have been like to go to a Chinese restaurant 50 years ago. You eat dishes vaguely Chinese in theme and more American in palette. It didn’t matter, though, because most people didn’t know the difference. If I didn’t know the difference, would my meal have made me happy?
Sometimes, it is a shame to know what you are not getting.