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Jae Kim's Korean Market
Aside from the fact that he’s worth over $100 million dollars, Hong is exactly the kind of person you’d imagine when you think of a middle-aged Vietnamese guy in Southern California - stern yet kind, ethnically Asian yet politically white.
Hong finds out about his winning lotto ticket over steaming stone bowls of bibimbap at a Korean restaurant in Buena Park. Hong’s two daughters, Sara and Leanne, and his wife Rachel are too busy eating to notice Hong’s slack jawed expression when he sees the winning numbers for that week’s lotto on the restaurant’s television screen.
Hong doesn’t say anything to his family out of fear that he’s gotten the numbers wrong - surely, he’s made some sort of mistake. From the War, Hong had learned not to trust good news.
Just before the Fall of Saigon, Hong’s parents used the last of their savings to pay some smugglers to get Hong’s family out of Vietnam. Every day, the ship’s captain said they were almost at Guam - just a bit longer and a little more wind, the captain would say. For the first few days, 8-year old Hong was delighted to hear the good news from their captain each and every morning. But after the fifth day at sea, once their cramped boat was stranded with little drinking water and even less gasoline, Hong found that he was too dehydrated to even lick his chapped lips.
It was then that Hong realized that good news in life was just an opportunity for it to disappoint you.
And so, even when the 7-Eleven employee started shaking his head smiling after scanning Hong’s lotto ticket, Hong still wasn’t convinced of his good fortune. Not too long ago, his daughter Sara told Hong about a study showing that lotto winners, on average, were less happy than people who lost a limb in a car accident.
Afraid and unsure of what to tell others, Hong decided to wait a week. And then a month. And then two months. A year later, Hong still hadn't done anything with the lotto winnings, aside from depositing the check.
But, by not doing anything, Hong realized he had already committed to a course of action, which was one of inaction. In a way, his choice wasn’t all that bad. He had a pretty wife and two smart daughters. All his siblings were still alive and healthy, and they all got along for the most part. Maybe if he just continued along with his life as if the lotto had never happened, he could avoid the unhappiness that riddled so many previous lotto winners.
But Hong didn’t shy away from using his newfound wealth on occasion. When a scraggly looking kid in his twenties came in to Jae Kim’s to apply for a cashier role that was just filled, Hong was about to turn the kid away until he saw his dreary eyes and messy hair. Hong remembered how disheveled he once felt when he and his family finally arrived in Guam after a week lost at sea.
The applicant, whose name was Tom Choi, told Hong about just needing a job to hold him over while he figured his life out. Tom also talked about his experience as a pastry chef at République, the popular French bakery in LA. The kid had potential, Hong thought to himself. Maybe someday, Hong could even trust Tom to manage the pastry section of Jae Kim’s.
After the interview, Hong decided to hire Tom. While Jae Kim’s technically didn’t have the budget for the hire, Hong could move money around. Hong could, after all, take a bit of a pay cut.
Many years later, once Hong passes away, his daughters Sara and Leanne will be dumbstruck by the amount of money that their dad has left for them in his will. While they eventually do figure out the source of his fortune, they’ll never understand why he kept the money under wraps his whole life. Or, why he continued to work at Jae Kim’s right up until he died.
Initially, Sara and Leanne will feel anger and disappointment at their dad’s secrecy. But then, some scattered memories will break through. There were the envelopes of cash that would mysteriously appear in their uncle’s mailbox when their uncle lost his job and fell behind on mortgage payments. Or, there was that time when their dad had uncharacteristically bought their mom diamond earrings for their 25th wedding anniversary.
“What the fuck?” Rachel had said when she opened Hong’s gift. Sara and Leanne were equally shocked, not because of the diamond earrings, but because they had never heard their mom curse before.
What Sara and Leanne will remember most though, is that for the rest of that day, all Hong could seem to do was smile.
Tom Choi discovered one of the biggest secrets in life after becoming a cashier at Jae Kim’s: you can learn everything about a person by paying attention to the groceries they buy.
Someone buying chips, salsa, and beer is a party host without much of an imagination. Meanwhile, a guy putting anchovies and romaine lettuce on the counter is trying to show off by making homemade Caesar salad - Tom used to do the same thing for Jess back when they were still together.
All things considered, life was getting better for Tom since the breakup with Jess. At Jae Kim’s, Tom wasn’t overworked like he used to be at his pastry chef gig. Also, it didn’t hurt that his co-workers seemed to like him. Tom’s boss Hong recently told him to keep up the hard work and positive attitude, which for Hong, was the equivalent of a warm embrace and a hearty pat on the back.
Alexa, the red-headed butcher, meanwhile, seemed to always be seated next to Tom during lunch hour. Once Alexa learned about Tom’s pastry chef background, she began sneaking him meat that he could use for the savory pies he made at home.
Everything at Jae Kim’s was going pretty well for Tom until the day that Jess’ new boyfriend Drew showed up to the store.
Drew worked in finance, went to the gym daily, and sailed regularly thanks to his family’s yacht club membership. Tom’s knowledge of Drew was a testament to Tom continuing to follow Jess on social media despite knowing better.
Once Drew got to the checkout aisle, he put his groceries down at the counter, which consists of a bottle of Malbec, a filet mignon, and some vegetable oil. It’s undoubtedly a steak dinner for Drew and Jess tonight, but it seemed like Drew would be using vegetable oil - instead of the obvious choice of butter - to cook the steak. Tom couldn’t help but shake his head, grinning.
“Day going well?” Drew asked, noticing Tom’s amusement.
“Real well, just tired” Tom said, yawning to suppress his grin. “Date night tonight?”
“Ya man. I wasn’t sure what cut to get, so the butcher told me to get the filet and to cut it up into slices before throwing it onto the pan,” Drew leaned in and lowered his voice. “She’s doesn’t look like your typical butcher, but she seems to know her stuff.”
Tom looked at Drew puzzled. Slicing up filet mignon before it was cooked was the equivalent of taking a shit in the sink. You could do it, but why would you?
Tom then turned to Alexa in the butcher section who winked at him playfully. Tom then realized that she must have recognized Drew from Jess’ social media posts, which he would occasionally share with Alexa grumpily over lunch break.
Tom thought about saying something to Drew, feeling guilty as he imagined Jess frowning at the slices of well-done filet mignon on her oily plate.
But then Tom remembered those long nights towards the end when Jess wouldn’t come home until the next morning because she was out dancing with friends. Tom never did figure out if those friends happened to be just a singular friend who happened to be her co-worker that she texted late into the night who perhaps maybe was Drew.
Tom finished bagging Drew’s items and tells him it sounds like a swell date.
Alexa McCallister grew up in a family whose livelihood consisted of running McCallister’s, the local butchery in the Sunset District of San Francisco. Back when the Sunset primarily consisted of Irish immigrants like the McCallisters, their butchery specialized in corned beef, savory pies, and meat stews. But over time, as waves of Irish immigration receded and were replaced by increasingly large waves of Chinese immigrants, Alexa’s father began to pivot. By the time Alexa was born, the family butcher shop was well-versed in preparing whole duck and roasted barbecue pork.
When Alexa came back from college, the McCallister men - her father and grandpa - had displayed uncharacteristic feminism by offering to pass down the butcher shop to Alexa, the sole heir to the family business.
Alexa, much to the disappointment of her family, told the McCallister men that she would think about it, with the casualness of someone who had just been asked if she wanted to get burgers later that night.
Alexa wasn’t yet interested in running her family business. While she loved butchery and could realistically have been a butcher at the age of 14 if it weren’t for pesky child labor laws, Alexa wanted to be exposed to other butchers and their various techniques. To ensure a vibrant future at McCallister’s, she needed to work at other butcheries first, which is how she ended up at Jae Kim’s Korean Market.
At Jae Kim’s, Alexa expected to learn how to prep and trim various cuts of meat in a distinctly Korean style. Bonus points if they taught her how to bulk prepare marinade for bulgogi or spicy pork belly.
But when one of Jae Kim’s long-time prep cooks retired, the store manager Hong asked Alexa to fill in, given the large volume of orders that time of year. And so, with the help of the rest of the kitchen staff at Jae Kim’s, Alexa not only became an expert Korean butcher, but also became skilled at preparing all sorts of pickled vegetables and banchan.
By the time Tom begins working at Jae Kim’s, Alexa was somewhat of a local celebrity in the Korean community at Buena Park. This wasn’t too surprising given that Alexa was a pretty, red-headed girl in her twenties who could make banchan that even Koreans in Korea would approve of. It didn’t take too long for older Korean women to begin inquiring not too slyly about Alexa’s love life in an attempt to set her up with their single sons and nephews.
But by that point, it was too late - Alexa had already fallen for Tom, even in his slightly deflated, post-break up state. To his credit though, Tom was staying busy to keep Jess out of his mind, so he filled his spare time doing what he does best: baking.
Every weekend, on Sunday morning, Tom would leave fresh, homemade pastries in the staff room. One weekend, it’s brownies. The next weekend, it’s macaroons. Another weekend, blueberry muffins.
Without fail, the pastries would be gone within the hour.
And without fail, Alexa would have at least two.
The first time that Alexa met Tom, she was leaving the staff room and almost ran into him as she was stuffing the remainder of a lemon square into her mouth.
“Seems like you like them,” Tom said grinning.
“Mhmdf,” Alexa mumbled back.
By the time Drew’s shopping at Jae Kim’s for what will eventually be a very mediocre steak dinner, Alexa and Tom have become fast friends. Over lunch hour, they talk about the latest restaurants they’ve eaten at, the most recent dishes they’ve made, and of course, much to Alexa’s chagrin, Tom’s ex-girlfriend.
Given their complementary skill sets in the kitchen - Tom as a pastry chef and Alexa as a butcher - they often joke about the two of them being able to throw the best dinner party imaginable.
Years later, when Tom and Alexa are hosting dinner at their cozy apartment in the Sunset, guests will rave about the glazed short ribs, the banchan, and the sweet yuzu pie. Tom will respond with a grin, saying that even before he and Alexa got together, they had joked about putting together an extravagant dinner party, just like this one.
Alexa, meanwhile, will put her hand on Tom’s thigh, thinking to herself that she had never joked about throwing these dinner parties with Tom.
She had always just hoped.