Noraebong: East Meets West in Common Love of Bad Singing, Booze
On a rare night out a few weeks ago, I found myself in a ladies' room, eavesdropping on a conversation between two leggy blondes. They were ready to move on to the next party and were debating the destination. What occurred next left me in momentary shock and made me realize how out of it I really am. Blonde 1 suggested that they continue their evening at what she called "Asian karaoke." Blonde 2 asked, "What's that?" Numero uno blonde explained, "It's, like, karaoke with your own room and stuff. It's sooo much fun." The extra "o's" in "so" must have been convincing enough for her pal, as off they went, journeying to a locale that up to that point, I felt was a well-kept secret in Dallas nightlife.
I'm not a stranger to Dallas' Noraebong, the private Korean karaoke party rooms primarily located in the old Koreatown of Royal Lane. Yes, I fulfill the Asian stereotype of loving me some karaoke, and Noraebong is the enticement most used when my friends try to lure me out from my living room cave. The thing about Noraebong, however, is that it's reserved as the last stop of the evening. As you can guess, I hardly ever make it that far.
Sparked by the eavesdropping episode in that nightclub's restroom, however, I knew I had some investigating to do. Sending out my Batman signal to all my friends, letting them know I was, indeed, alive, I rounded up the troops for a night of bad karaoke.
My first "research" project would be MAC Karaoke. Along with Family Karaoke, MAC is considered one of the more longstanding popular Noraebong destinations in Koreatown. Their updated song list is vast and all-encompassing, with songs ranging from K-pop to Lady Gaga. This is much appreciated, because Paula Abdul's "Rush, Rush" gets old after a while. Shut up.
For all the years I've been Noraebong-ing, it was always considered poor form for non-Asians to attend without being accompanied without at least one Asian person. My, how times have changed. The night our group visited MAC, the room next to us was occupied by a large group of partying Causcasians. Not one Asian in sight. Yes, I poked my head into their private room just to make sure. They looked like they were having a great time, too. It made me think. Why is it that karaoke is considered this embarrassing activity reserved for Japanese businessmen when, obviously, it's enjoyed by all. Or is it the anonymity of the private rooms and the free-flow of alcohol that is bringing the masses to this new late-night place to be?
As we saddled ourselves into our night of cheesy music video backgrounds and tambourine playing, we placed an order for typical Noraebong fare. No more pussyfooting around: You should know that MAC's chicken wings are the SH*T. We placed two orders of the wings, when one would sufficiently feed a pride of hungry lions. You may want to dive straight into the pile of chicken wings, but take it from someone who has burned her mouth on numerous occasions -- wait. The wings are perfectly spicy and have a crispy crust battered by the hands of fry gods. To wash down the wings, we ordered the requisite Soju, or Korean rice wine.
It should be noted that Noraebong isn't cheap. Some places are open until the wee hours of the morning. Before you know it, a few songs have turned into a marathon, and a couple of hours have turned into a whole evening. Start with $20 an hour for a room, add that to any food orders and alcoholic beverages (cut-off is 2 a.m.), and you have yourself one expensive evening.
MAC's chicken wings, alcohol and karaoke -- life is good
Being the poor artsy-fartsy type that I am, I have to keep this in mind whenever I go out for a night of karaoke. I try to keep my visits to a minimum, but...
The following week, my friend Sam enticed me to come out to a relatively new Noraebong destination, Bluebird. Walking into Bluebird, it was obvious that the karaoke spot did not enjoy the same patronage as its neighbors, MAC and Family. Aside from our party, it was virtually empty. Looking at the song book, it was obvious why. Bluebird lacks the song catalog of its competitors. The mark of a good Noraebong is an updated and current song catalog. While it's nice to have oldies but goodies in the song book, there needs to be a constant flow of new songs to keep customers interested.
In the food department, all Noraebongs serve their version of basic bar food. There are the occasional standouts, like MAC's chicken wings, but for the most part, it's bowls of stale popcorn and ramen. Bluebird has a decent Katsudon, or fried porkchop, but the best alcoholic accompaniment is their spicy ramen. The waitress brought us spoons, chopsticks, and small bowls to share the huge bowl of noodles and red hot soup. For a dish that would seem difficult to eat and share, it's surprisingly appropriate as bar fare.
Bluebird's spicy ramen
Honestly, I'm torn between my territorial unease and my bemusement of Noraebong's move into the mainstream. There has been a collision of worlds. The influx of non-Asians has created some hiccups, at least in what I saw in my past few visits to Noraebong. In some instances, certain karaoke establishments have had to turn away parties. This isn't to say that the Noraebong establishments aren't enjoying the increased business. It's quite the contrary. However, whenever new elements are introduced, there will be some tension. As Noraebong attracts more visitors coming from bars all over the city, there have been a growing number of TABC raids in the recent past. The little speakeasy type hangouts are attracting more attention, and it's altered the dynamic.
Nevertheless, what's a better way to bring together different groups of people than some bar food, high-alcoholic content rice wine and bad singing? I'll learn to be a little less possessive while you can plan your next night out to Noraebong. Just remember to send me an invite.
2525 Royal Lane
11434 Emerald St.