Emerging Victorious (A Kalbi Burger Challenge Recap)

Screen grab from google translation of Korea Daily site
"Everywhere 'Cheerio' came a cheer erupted in cheers." (Courtesy Google Translate)

The good news is, I won. The bad news is, I won. (Groan.)

Actually, it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared it might be. I was definitely full, but still managed to go out and visit the Los Feliz Street Fair Tien tipped us off to in last week’s GTD This Weekend, which was a perfect way to walk off the beating I’d just given myself.

The short version is this: I showed up in Koreatown, mingled with the super-friendly variety of competitors and spectators from various parts of LA, I ate delicious Kalbi burgers until I could hardly tell that they were delicious anymore, and I won the contest in a 0.8 oz scale finish. Click through for the long (disgusting) version and some pics after the jump.

Upon my arrival at Kalbi Burger (escorted by Blogging.LA author Travis Koplow—picture a trainer leading a professional boxer to the ring), I was greeted by the woman behind the @Koreatown handle, Lee, who was just as friendly and enthusiastic in person as in the Twitter feed. She also introduced me to a couple of the volunteers who worked hard to help make the event possible, @hnjohnso (Mayor of Kalbi Burger on Foursquare, with a whopping 4 check-ins!) and @chingiscool, along with the folks from the O.N.E. Coconut Water, who were handing out free drinks to keep everyone refreshed.

I also had the privilege of meeting Kalbi Burger owner, Hawk Lee. Warm and personable, Hawk had a look of joy in his face as he spoke with people in the crowd, talking about Kalbi Burger and what it is for him. Another person I was introduced to was Dr. Mark Cheng, one of the two individuals whose gray matter birthed this brainchild, the #KBchallenge.

The other half of that pair was the first I met of my competition, LA-based personal trainer and fitness expert Tiger Joo. I then met the adorable (and not at all intimidating) singer-songwriter Ai Cherie. I was feeling pretty good at that point, but then I met Youtube dancer Joseph (@Friezsnake) and video gamer Dex (@TheApplemonkey), and once again I suspected I may be up against some serious competition.

The crowd seemed anxious, and soon we were making our way to the table to get the thing started. It was at this point that I started to get nervous. Just to backtrack a little, I spent the entire day prior moving from North Hollywood to Studio City, lifting heavy objects and sweating profusely, and didn’t even manage to get my bed assembled in the new place until well after midnight. I didn’t wake up in time for breakfast, so these burgers were my first meal of the day. I didn’t know it yet, but they would also be my last.

They set out all of our burgers before us, along with four drinks of our choosing, and then read the rules. All I really remember is that regurgitating at any point in the event results in immediate disqualification. They gave us a 3, 2, 1, and then blew the whistle to signal start time.

The ten minutes that followed is still a bit of a blur in my memory, but people cheered on their favorites, made announcements to signal each passing minute, and shouted loudly each time someone finished off one burger and started on the next.

I must say, that first taste of the burger was quite pleasantly surprising. The Korean BBQ marinade and the Kalbi Aioli made me want to chew slowly and savor each bite. And keeping in mind that “slow and steady wins the race,” I allowed myself to do that to some extent.

Well, for the first two burgers anyway.

I started to grow concerned as Dex was moving on to his third burger while I still had at least two large bites left on my second. I picked up the pace a little, and even had to stop checking in with Ai Cherie to see how she was doing. (Travis Koplow suggested that if I hadn’t been seated next to her, I probably would have finished all the burgers with no problem.)

I managed to catch up, and while Dex and I both started our fourth and final burgers sometime between the six- and seven-minute mark, we both had slowed down a great deal, too. Before I knew it, they announced that we had just one minute remaining. This was about the time that my stomach really began to comprehend what was going on, and said to the mouth: “No more!” I got that sinking feeling, for a moment, that if I swallowed another bite I would end up disqualifying myself.

So I just kept chewing.

As they counted off the final ten seconds, I could hear a voice from somewhere in the back saying, “the meat! Eat the meat first! It weighs the most!” I stuffed what was left of the burger patty in my mouth just before the closing whistle blew, after which we had 15 seconds to swallow whatever was left in our mouths. I chewed as fast as I could as people shouted at me to swallow. I choked down what I could, quite happy that the sick feeling from forty seconds past was a distant memory. When they hit fifteen seconds, they ordered me to spit out whatever was left. Yeah, that was just about as gross as everything else that took place in the previous ten minutes.

I was certain, looking at the partially masticated contents of the basket in front of me, that I could not have won. There was just too much there, it seemed. But Dex was seated at the far end of the table, so I couldn’t see what he had left. Hawk Lee came and took a look at both baskets to see whether he could make a visual determination of who’d eaten the most, but apparently it was too close to call. He took each of our baskets into the restaurant, followed by at least a handful of witnesses, to weigh out the remains on an electronic scale. We contestants waited with bated breath and chugging aortas, and then we heard a loud collective gasp of surprise come from inside the store. I looked over at Dex and jokingly suggested we may have to settle the tie using Seoul Dogs (kimchi hot dogs—be still my heart!), an idea he didn’t seem to mind one bit!

Hawk Lee and emcee Heather emerged from the store with our baskets and placed them back on the able in front of us. Heather slow-played her final pronouncement in an effort to build the tension and suspense. But she was standing in front of me, not Dex, as she held the glass trophy and announced the weights of the remains of our burgers: 4.3 ounces and 5.1 ounces. And then she announced my name and handed me my trophy.

Prior to the challenge, there was a lot of joking around about the fact that I was the token white guy in the contest. I sort of expected to get left in the dust by some Kobayashi-style skinny Asian dude, but one of the beautiful things about ignorant stereotypes is seeing how inaccurate they tend to be in describing real life. Sure, I was the token white guy, but as I later learned on twitter, apparently Tiger Joo was the only competitor in this Koreatown event of Korean descent. (I am not able to confirm or deny the veracity of that claim.) None of that really seemed to matter, though, as everyone was just there to joke and laugh and have a good time.

After the carnage, I was interviewed by a journalist from the most widely circulated Korean-language newspaper in the US, the Korea Daily. When he asked me my thoughts on the competition, I tried to emphasize that one of the things I love about LA is how events like this happen in our various neighborhoods, drawing people together and helping to build a sense of community. In the Google translate version of that page, it appears that maybe I said something about being reincarnated in Koreatown, too, but I’m not sure.

Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun and met some neat people, including some we may write up for our Blogging (in) LA series. I was also interviewed by the Korean Beacon, whose write-up can be found here.

Here are some pictures and video from the event. Most photos taken by myself, but with a few from Ching Yu Wong, TofuProd, via the Koreatown facebook page.

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