For the first time in my life, I got to introduce someone to The Junction. It was just after Christmas, and I had brought Bruce, the man I was dating, back to meet my family in Oklahoma. He’s from New Jersey and had recently moved to Austin, Texas. “This is the best restaurant in Lawton,” I told him as we drove from my parents’ house in the countryside toward town, cramped shoulder-to-shoulder in my sister’s car with my cousins. “Trust me.”
Something I’d always suspected but was able to confirm after getting fresh eyes on the situation is that Lawton is a quietly surprising place. The nearby military base brings an eclectic mix of cultures to our otherwise obscure corner of Oklahoma. We have the cowboys and farmers you’d expect from our neck of the woods, and we also have significant Black and Asian communities, along with a prominent Native American presence. This is how Lawton ended up with The Junction, which serves up the best bulgogi I’ve ever had.
My family doesn’t like to cook, so we rely heavily on eating out. Options are somewhat limited. There’s Rib Crib, which is exactly what it sounds like, and there’s Chili’s. Nowadays, we also have an Olive Garden. It opened back when I was in high school, and its debut was met like the Second Coming. At last, people seemed to say, we’re a real city. But whenever I make the trek from Brooklyn to Lawton, a trip that involves two planes and a long drive from Oklahoma City, nothing welcomes me home quite like The Junction.
I don’t remember my first time walking through the front door, the sad ping of a bell. I don’t know when it opened, if it’s older or younger than me. What I do know is that no trip is complete without it; it’d be like going to Rome and foregoing pasta. I wish I could have it every day, but I can’t, so I have to be strategic. Luckily, one of my family’s favorite pastimes is arguing over what and where to eat. I’m often able to use this chaos to my advantage, offering that my sister and I can go off and do our own thing and get The Junction.
Being seen at The Junction after midnight was something of a status symbol in Lawton – it meant you had a social life to speak of.
We don’t usually eat inside The Junction, mind you. Sure, the restaurant has its charms – an unloved pool table, mangy carpet that screams “people used to be able to smoke in here, damn it,” an old TV perched in the corner scratching out the news. But sitting at a table is something one does in high school, as it’s something of a hangout for kids, something we used to do, but no longer have the requisite youthful reflexes for.
It also stays open until 3 a.m. I can still picture myself sitting at one of the card tables, drunk as a skunk after a house party, waiting to be nursed back to life by a steaming, sticky hunk of rice. Being seen at The Junction after midnight was something of a status symbol in Lawton – it meant you had a social life to speak of. But these days, we forgo dealing with teens by ordering takeout. The place is also in what my mom calls a “shady part of town,” and although my sister and I roll our eyes, it does have the bullet holes to prove it.
Speaking of my sister, she’s the one who goes in to get the goods. She’s more of a people person than I am, and I can’t handle Moses on my own, the man who sits behind the bar and rings us up. It’s always Moses – he’s something of a final boss battle in the video game where the reward is bulgogi. It’s a family business, and it’s been that way forever, but Moses is reliably the one you’ll find yourself dealing with should you pay the restaurant a visit.
Be careful how you place your order. If you say, “Can I get …” he’ll cut you off with, “I don’t know, can you?” If you pay with cash, he’ll say you’re a dollar short. If you pay with a card, he’ll say it was declined. When your food arrives in a plastic bag, don’t immediately grab it, or he’ll say, “You sure this is yours?” Wait a nanosecond too long, though, and he’ll scoot it toward you and say, “What? You don’t want it?”
Moses is bored.
That’s how you know The Junction is good, though. Moses wouldn’t get away with any of that if he didn’t know the bulgogi was worth it. And it is. I’d deal with two Moseses (maybe not three) for the bulgogi. It comes in a white foam takeout box, warming my lap on the ride home. Half the box is beautiful, salty meat, and the other half is rice. It comes with kimchi, cucumber, and zucchini. To me, home is setting the bag down on the dining room table and opening a box from The Junction, that moment right before taking the first bite.
“Damn,” Bruce said. “That’s pretty good.”