My harabeoji had many secrets, and one of them was tucked inside his BLT.
He kept many things hidden—grief, remorse, worry—in an abyss of stubborn silence. He left Korea for San Diego in 1978 after enduring more than half a century of instability and loss. It was then, at 67, that he started anew, not to retire to manicured golf courses and poolside card games like other sexagenarians, but to work in a corner deli. He had been a widower, briefly, and now, in his new city, he was a newlywed with a new business.
From Our Shop
His new wife—also a widow—was a Korean immigrant by way of Bolivia before she found her way to California. Together, they opened a corner deli where my harabeoji, who left behind an import business and construction company in Asia, learned how to make “All-American” sandwiches. His life savings were just enough to secure a lease for a small storefront that hugged a stuccoed corner of Hillcrest, a refuge for the LGBQT+ community near Downtown San Diego. Rent was still cheap in the 1980s and 1990s, and his neighbors were friendly. He’d nod to the Portuguese barbers, who would warmly wave back as they sipped their morning coffee. With his newsboy cap crowning his head, he worked full days on his feet, slicing deli meats and stocking shelves. At the end of his day, my harabeoji would throw on his Members Only jacket and take a solo walk to drop off extra sandwiches to the unhoused.
I also spent many long hours at the deli, which served as a back-up daycare for my parents, who were juggling two businesses—a liquor store and Chinese take-out restaurant—without steady childcare. Perched on a stool behind the counter, sucking on Now and Laters while flipping through stacks of picture books borrowed from the library, I never dared to interrupt the stream of sandwich-making.
“Order,” my harabeojii would command, standing like a conductor in front of an orchestra.
His customers kept it simple. The orders were staccato notes with no frills, no allergies, no extras. Egg salad on rye. Turkey, cheddar, wheat. Ham and swiss on white.
No matter the sandwich, my halmuhnee started by ripping a sheet of deli wrap. Two slices of bread—deftly swiped with just enough mustard and mayo to make them glisten—served as the base. Then, freshly sliced meat or scoops of creamy salads, a shower of shredded iceberg lettuce, and a couple sturdy tomato slices were plunked on top. The two sides were briskly married and sealed tightly without a second thought. My harabeoji halved the sandwich with precision and wrapped it again, compressing it so not a single shred of lettuce could escape. Each taut bundle was marked with a letter to decode its insides: H for ham, Tk for turkey, Tu for tuna. The clank of the register drawer signaled his return to the counter. Slice, fold, repeat.
My favorite sandwich was my harabeoji’s BLT. Whether the customer requested it or not, the wheat bread came toasted, mainly for structural purposes: the slices were sturdy, neutral bookends to microwaved bacon, tomato slices, iceberg lettuce, and—surprise!—slices of velvety avocado.
I don’t know how, or why, my harabeoji—who grew up eating rice for lunch—decided to add avocado to his BLT. While today’s BLTs are often dressed up with extras and upcharges from fried eggs to flavored mayos, the ‘80s and ‘90s were simpler times for the humble sandwich—unless it came from my harabeoji’s deli. Avocados had yet to begin their stratospheric climb to viral toastmaker and world lifestyle trendsetter.
Maybe my harabeoji picked it up as a hot tip from another Korean deli owner, or perhaps he was inspired by the lush guacamole in the carne asada tacos he devoured in his new hometown. He had a restless appetite for new flavors and found joy in sharing them. He often navigated his way to immigrant enclaves and stripmalls around Southern California in his silver Toyota Camry, slurping down fragrant bowls of pho, swallowing raw and chewy sea creatures, and buying tropical fruits that looked unpeelable but yielded explosions of bright sweetness. He never revealed how he found these places, but he’d bring us to these tiny restaurants where we’d be welcomed like old friends. Whether his sandwich secret was inspired by one of his gastronomic field trips, he never told me. But however it came to be, the avocado’s unspoken contribution to his BLT created a perfect alchemy of salty, smoky creaminess that made my mouth water after each bite.
My harabeoji retired from making sandwiches when he was 80 years old. Since then, his BLT, with its secret addition, has become an edible talisman for me. When I’m lost in a swirl of restlessness and self-doubt, his BLT helps me find my way home. There’s nothing Korean about it. There’s no bold swirl of gochujang mixed into the mayo, not a brash blare of kimchi to be found, yet it reminds of my harabeoji, a taciturn man who restarted his life as a sandwich maker in his sixties. I smile when I think of him adding slices of avocado to the sandwich, as if they always belonged with the bacon, lettuce and tomato. It’s true: the nutty fattiness gives weight and balance. It’s a smooth counterpart to the confetti of iceberg lettuce, a subtle base for the tang of a ripe tomato, and a soft foil to the crunch and crisp of the bacon. After finishing one, I feel myself restored, ready to pick myself up again, just like my harabeoji did so long ago.