mulberry bucket bag Koreatown packs a lot of gems into its vibrant 2
Los Angeles, of course, is lucky enough to have the largest Korean community outside the motherland and a concentration of restaurants that pick up trends sometimes just months after they have hit Seoul. Koreatown isn’t just a Korean neighborhood with its markets, nightclubs, towers, billiard parlors and food obsessive mini malls, it sometimes seems as if it is a distant prefecture of Seoul that just happens to be extra rich in Salvadorans and Oaxacans; a place that honors not just the emigrs who started arriving in California in the late 1970s but also their children Chloe Kim! who have invented a brand new way to be American.
Sometimes I think A Won should be better regarded for its seafood tangs boiling, frothing, chile smacked soups served in red hot communal pots. Al tang, thick with mushrooms, herbs and chewy sacs of cod roe, is especially good. But it is hard to get out of there without ordering al bap, a hearty Korean equivalent of Japanese chirashi: a bowl of seasoned rice striped with different kinds of roe, a bit of omelet, and even a bit of barbecued eel. The Korean sashimi isn’t bad, either it’s bigger than the Japanese kind, and you can dose it with bean paste and raw garlic if you want. But the restaurant’s famous specialty is hwe dup bap, slivers of raw fish that you toss at the table with greens, vegetables, pickles and hot rice, tinting it as red as you dare with chile paste that you squirt out of a repurposed ketchup bottle.
If you asked a CGI guy to reinvent tofu, it would probably look a lot like soondubu, a heaving mass that spits like a lake of volcanic lava and broadcasts a fine, gory mist of chile and broth. The soondubu cult has spread pretty far in the Los Angeles area, and if you look hard enough you can probably find a cauldron of the seething bean curd within a few minutes of your home. But the local soondubu masters have been preparing the dish at Beverly Soon Tofu for something like 32 years, and the barely gelled blocks of pure, subtle tofu, which you can order spicy or nonspicy, are still unsurpassed. I like the version with clams.
2717 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles
Koreatown has rarely been noted for its serenity, but on the right afternoon, when you’re slumped into the kind of low padded chairs that resemble artifacts from a bank lobby circa 1983, Bon Juk, the local outlet of a popular Seoul based porridge specialist, can seem soothingly bland. The walls are dominated by huge photographs of the various kinds of porridge on offer, along with descriptions of their nutritive virtues the porridge with smoked salmon comes off almost as a Korean version of a Scottish kedgeree, and the deluxe jeonbokjuk is spiked with an impressive quantity of chewy abalone shards. The pumpkin porridge with glutinous rice dumplings is sweet, gentle and utterly calming. Are you going to get the spicy porridge with octopus and kimchi instead? I don’t blame you.
3551 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
It is not difficult to find samgyetang in Koreatown restaurants. The brothy, whole game hen, stuffed with sticky rice, jujubes and gnarled fingers of fresh ginseng, is one of the most restorative dishes in a culture dedicated to restorative cuisine it’s like delicatessen chicken soup times 10. But the best samgyetang in Koreatown is probably at this cramped mini mall specialist. When you sprinkle a bit of gray sea salt into the bland soup, the flavors bloom as if by magic: pockets of pureed garlic infusing the rice, plumes of sweetness trickling from the dried fruit, and a lovely chickeny aroma erupting from the bird’s soft flesh. For an extra couple of bucks, you can substitute shaved deer antler for the ginseng, but I’ve never felt the need.
Budae jjigae can seem a bit like an urban legend when you first hear about it, a spicy Korean soup thick with hot dogs, Spam and packaged ramen noodles, ingredients originally cadged from American military bases around Seoul. It is sometimes called military stew, sometimes Johnson tang, in honor of President Johnson. I should probably emphasize that Chunju Han il Kwan is a nice place, with an elegant array of banchan, small plates, served before the meal, a large repertory of traditional soups and stews, tons of seafood and crisp, lacy potato pancakes. It serves proper Korean food. But what draws the crowds on weekends is undoubtedly the level 10 budae jjigae, kimchi, rice cakes and fresh chrysanthemum leaves crowding the processed meats and what you eat is both delicious and unmistakably Korean, another example of the culture’s genius at finding the beauty in unpromising ingredients.
If you spend a lot of time watching old Asian movies, Dan Sung Sa may be the kind of place you thought had disappeared half a century ago dim, wooden and loud, lined with walled, graffiti splattered booths, centered on cooks who crouch over guttering flames. It wasn’t until the owners built a website that most non Koreans learned that the restaurant was an interpretation of a pojangmacha, the orange tented street pubs quickly disappearing from Seoul, designed to resemble an old Korean movie theater. You hadn’t needed a menu to realize that the restaurant was built around the cheerful consumption of soju; grilled skewers holding meat, seafood or the seaweed laminated dough vermicelli constructions everyone called “dumbbells”; and bar food like sauteed octopus, kimchi pancakes and barbecued pork ribs. The cabbage soup, which comes with your first drink, is served in a metal bowl so battered you might wonder whether somebody worked it over with a baseball bat.
Dong Il Jang is pretty old school even for Koreatown, a vestige of the time before the scene was dominated by barbecue restaurants the dark interior may remind you of old steakhouses like Taylor’s. And while there is plenty of barbecue to go around here, almost everybody orders the roast gui instead beautiful sliced rib eye seared in butter on a huge tabletop pan. Snatch a piece from the hot iron before the juices cook out, season it with a bit of sesame oil and salt, and chase it with an icy shot of soju: perfect. Dong Il Jang’s version of the Korean steak tartare called yuk hwe, slivered raw beef tossed with sesame oil and slivers of Asian pear, is often considered the best in K town.
Has Eight stopped advertising grilled pork belly as health food? If so, I don’t really want to know. Because it always put a little jump in my step, imagining that the set menu of eight seasoned pork belly slabs was toning my body in eight different ways, the ginseng pork belly toning metabolism before the garlic pork belly got around to the cholesterol, the curry flavored pork belly preventing Alzheimer’s before the bright green herbed pork belly went to work easing depression. It’s like statins,
beta blockers and Prozac all in one, administered in the form of tabletop grilled pork belly. Could you ask for more persuasive evidence of a loving God?
863 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles
Soondae, blood sausage, is one of the most popular Korean dishes in Los Angeles as well as in Seoul thin casings stuffed with oxblood and transparent threads of rice vermicelli, then boiled in an organ rich soup, fried crisp or sauteed with vegetables and heaps of spicy bean paste. It’s oddly genteel stuff, soondae, neither as funky nor as goopy as you might fear. And at the lovely Eighth Street Soondae, one of the oldest of Koreatown’s many soondae parlors, it is the stuff of shirtsleeve business lunches. The house combination plate includes crunchy fried soondae, sliced pig’s ear and a heap of boiled pork intestines, evoking the Korean equivalent of a Lyonnaise bouchon.
The only American branch of a small Seoul based chain uses only prime beef. It charges prices not much less than what you might expect to pay in a splashy American steakhouse. And it is devoted to the cult of bulgogi, which has a reputation as the poor relation of Korean barbecue world, the one dish nobody is happy to see on the table at a cheap all you can eat KBBQ joint. Yet the crisp kimchi pancakes are served on an arrangement of fresh ggaenip leaves, the pungent herb at the heart of Korean cuisine. The yuk hwe is luxuriant and soft. The barbecued skirt steak, rib steak and the kkot sal, richly marbled “flower beef,” are tasty. And the Gangnam style bulgogi is splendid: big, garlicky sheets of beef that crumple and soften on the tabletop grill, scented with smoke, sesame and pear, dissolving like ice cream on your tongue.
3435 Wilshire Blvd., No. 123, Los Angeles
Is Ham Hung a North Korean restaurant? Sort of, I guess, in that it’s named after North Korea’s second largest city. And its best dish is also of North Korean origin bibim naengmyeon, chewy cold buckwheat noodles tossed with spicy gochujang, slivered vegetables and extra chewy bits of raw skate, whose slightly weird taste is just right. In its former location, Ham Hung was one of the grand restaurants of Koreatown. In its current strip mall location, it’s a noodle shop with attitude. You wouldn’t be wrong if you decided to get a plate of sweet grilled short ribs on the side.
3109 Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles
Some people think that Ham Ji Park’s spicy gamjatang, brick red pork neck and potato soup, may be the single best hangover cure in an area dense in hangover cures. The chowder thick brew certainly feels soothing. There are a lot of other gamjatang specialists in Koreatown, but the density, the soft meat and the piney snap of the version at the original Pico Boulevard Ham Ji Park always strikes me as the most pleasant ranking even a tick or so above the soup at the restaurant’s 6th Street branch. The restaurant’s other great dish is pork ribs beautifully caramelized and not too sweet, a massive pile to be snipped into edible mouthfuls at the table with a pair of scissors. An order of each, supplemented with beer and soju, is more than enough food for four or five.
Sullungtang is a peculiar specialty for a restaurant, basically beef bones boiled for days until the liquid turns pearly gray and the aroma is more of minerals than meat. It’s bone broth in its most intense form, yet as soothing as a glass of milk. It may take on presence only after you stir in green onion tops and a smidge more salt than you may think it needs. A lot of places in Los Angeles do sullungtang. At Han Bat, it is the only thing on the menu, ready to be supplemented with flank, brisket or a variety pack of cattle organs. Some people consider it vulgar to flavor the soup with the house chile paste, but we promise not to tell.
The longest lines in the restaurant strip mall on 6th at Alexandria are for Dan Sung Sa its spicy galbijjim is a pure adrenaline rush. But the second longest are for the thick, hand cut noodles at Hangari. At noon and in the early evening, the waits for both places are about the same, which can lead to 45 minutes of pure FOMO, flitting back and forth between the sign in sheets, unwilling to commit to one pleasure or another. And then your name is called at Hangari, and you settle into an enormous bowl of those noodles in anchovy scented broth, lavishly paved with tiny manila clams, spiked with well aged kimchi (if you’ve asked for it), a long simmered umami bomb. I’m still not sure why a tiny bowl of dressed, cooked barley is brought out before the noodles an extra dose of starch? but the chewy grains are nutty and delicious.
The sedate tearoom may be the only calm bit of real estate in Koreatown on a busy afternoon, a place to sit at low tables, listen to traditional Korean music and linger over an aged green tea. The menu of sweets is limited but includes Koreatown’s definitive pat bing su, a restrained dessert of shaved ice and sweet beans that somehow evolved elsewhere into monstrous concoctions containing canned fruit cocktail, whipped cream and showers of Fruity Pebbles. Hwa Sun Ji’s idea of crazy fun is su jung hwa, a cold, sweet punch flavored with cinnamon and dried persimmon, garnished with a single pine nut.
3960 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
Dinner at a shellfish grill is one of the most enduring rituals in Koreatown. A waitress scatters clams on a wire grill; you pluck them the moment they pop open. Tiny scallops on the half shell seethe in butter. Surf clam shells sizzle. Huge oysters steam in their shells. Prawns blacken. Snails simmer in vessels fashioned from aluminum foil. Sweet potatoes roast in the embers. You dip everything in gochujang, melted butter or both. If you pay a little extra, hagfish, an ancient precursor to the eel, will be set to writhing on the grill too. It’s as easy as specifying an A, B or C dinner.
474 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles
When you visit the city of Jeonju, you will probably notice that many of the streets are lined with restaurants serving tossed rice salad, the region’s great gift to cuisine. So it is no surprise that the Koreatown restaurant Jeon Ju serves practically nothing but bibimbap a minimalist concoction of rice, mountain vegetables, an egg and oddly delicious bean sprouts (plus meat if you want it) tossed with a big spoonful of the fermented chile bean paste gochujang. Jeon Ju’s bibimbap is as deep and complex as a dram of old Scotch. Try the dolsot version made in a superheated stone vessel. There will be a subtly smoky flavor and a delicious, crunchy crust, like Korean tahdig, to nibble on toward the end of the meal.
2716 W. In its new location, tucked next to a Uygher barbecue in a crowded strip mall, it is merely obscure, although that doesn’t seem to stop the crowds piling in at dinnertime for the pan fried mackerel, marinated raw crab or spicy sauteed octopus, served with some of the most varied and freshest banchan in town. The bossam, a platter of sliced boiled pork belly served with fermented tiny fish and leaves and pickles to wrap it in, is perhaps a bit less elaborate than what you find at Kobawoo or Jang Teo, but is worth trying anyway get it with fresh oysters to tuck in with the pork. And it would be a crime to visit without an order of chefly black cod steamed with thick slices of radish, which is one of the best dishes in Koreatown.