No photos or question-asking allowed.
The first rule about Pyongyang Okryu Restaurant is that you don’t talk about Pyongyang Okryu Restaurant.
The restaurant, which has over 100 locations across Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, China, and the Middle East, found itself at the center of controversy last year when 13 Pyongyang workers at the Ningbo, China outpost defected to Seoul, South Korea.
While on a recent trip to Bangkok, I figured that eating at Pyongyang Okryu would be my only opportunity to taste North Korean food, so I had to go, even though the top comments on their TripAdvisor page are “a bizarre experience” and “very tense atmosphere.” I asked a friend who lives in Bangkok about the last time she ate there.
“We asked the waitress if she was from North Korea, and she wouldn’t answer us,” she said. “Then we mentioned how hot it was in Bangkok, and she said, ‘It’s much hotter here than in North Korea.’”
According to The Washington Post, the thousands of North Koreans who work at these restaurants are chosen based on their physical appearance and linguistic ability, and they often hail from upper-class Pyongyang families. Reportedly, the waitresses aren’t allowed to explore the communities in which they’re located unless accompanied by a “minder.”
The restaurant, situated next to a small parking lot down an alley off Ekkamai Road, has dark, tinted-glass doors—the kind where they can see you, but you can’t see them. This set the stage for the paranoia I’d feel for the remainder of the evening. When I began to open the door, two women dressed in red, ‘60s-style polka dot dresses rushed to grab the two doors in unison. Inside, only two of the plastic tablecloth-covered tables were occupied: one a group of women speaking Thai, and the other a group of men speaking Korean. Floral, hotel-grade art and fake trees accented the walls. As patriotic North Korean music played, a fuzzy TV presented images of what appeared to be ‘90s-era PC screensavers: nondescript clouds, mountains, buildings. Despite promises of a “cultural show” at 8:45 p.m. on Pyongyang’s Facebook page, the TV slideshow would be our only entertainment. When I asked the waitress if there was a show tonight, she said it had already happened at 8 p.m. (It was 8:11 p.m. and there was no evidence that anything resembling festivities had occurred.) On a typical night, the North Korean-born waitresses double as performers and dance on the karaoke stage towards the back of the restaurant.
My friend and I sat down at a table across from a “NO PHOTOS” sign. To avoid any trouble, I covertly wrapped my camera in my cardigan and stuck it deep into my tote bag. The menu offered dishes that reminded me of the South Korean fare you can get in New York’s Koreatown (kimchi fried rice, bibimbap, dumplings, seafood pancakes) and then some that you certainly cannot: mussel gruel, pine nut gruel, pitch-black potato bread and “the Pyongyang cold noodle tray.” We ordered the latter, a metal platter of slimy buckwheat noodles mixed with mustard, a bit of vinegar and a mysterious broth, then topped with unseasoned chicken, pork, vegetables and an egg. To serve the dish, our waitress brought out arts-and-craft scissors and a spoon, silently snipping the noodles in the giant metal tray and dividing them between two bowls. Despite really everything about them, the noodles were delicious—an ideal balance of sweetness and acidity, plus an appealingly smooth texture for people who aren’t weirded out by that. (Tip: Avoid the bland meat on top.) The fried dumplings, stuffed with kimchi and ground meat, were delightful, too, as was the crispy, egg-topped kimchi fried rice.
We accompanied our meal with Makgeolli, a slightly-sweet, creamy and effervescent alcoholic beverage made from rice. After a few glasses of booze, I felt emboldened to snap a few iPhone photos, so I asked my friend to keep a lookout.
“You’re good,” she said. “Our waitress seems to be in a daze.” I looked back towards the door, and she was standing there, looking off into the distance; she stayed that way for a few minutes. I quickly snapped photos of the table and then stopped before getting a good one. I was too nervous. (I would be awful at crimes.)
Throughout the meal, whenever we asked questions about the food, our waitress seemed nervous, offering one-word answers or slight tilts of the head. I was too scared to ask about the restaurant itself, or if she liked living in Thailand. When we left, I tried to take a picture of the front of the restaurant, but my friend noticed cameras above the parking lot. They were probably just a standard security measure, but I put my camera back in my bag and hurried away.