Koreatown's Top 40
By Jonathan Gold
Twenty-odd years ago, I lived in a neighborhood that was then called Wilshire Center, in a large apartment, probably grand in its day, with Palladian windows, an oddly placed stairwell, and carpet that hadn’t been changed since the place was built in the mid-’20s. My neighbors then were mostly elderly white people who had lived in the neighborhood since the ’30s, when the old ballroom around the corner hosted big bands, when a romantic night out in the neighborhood might have involved a show at the Cocoanut Grove, big steaks at the Brown Derby, maybe cocktails afterward at the Town House or the Cove. The neighborhood had become slightly shabby since then — the big insurance houses down on Wilshire seemed to be all that was keeping the area alive — but it was a genteel shabbiness, and something of the old rhythms were still alive.
Not long after, the Koreans started moving in: a few families at a time at first, then into most of the block. My own landlady, who had lived in the same apartment for 50 years, eventually sold out herself, and I wasn’t surprised to discover that the new owners, who moved into the apartment next to mine, were Korean as well. The “For Sale” sign out front, as well as the signs posted everywhere down the rest of the block, had been lettered in neat Hangul script.
When the new owners closed escrow and inspected my apartment for the first time, they took off their shoes out of respect although I begged them not to, and they managed to restrain from grimacing as they slid their stockinged feet across the freshly mopped kitchen floor. When I went to a Wilshire high-rise to sign the new lease, one wall of their agent’s conference room was covered with a large-scale map of the Mid-Wilshire area on which each Korean-owned property was marked with a pushpin. Entire swaths of the city, including much of Hancock Park, Country Club Park, the Ambassador district and the Pico-Union area, were paved with the pins, solid, shiny surfaces pebbled like the skin of a basketball — neighborhoods where the fire escapes now were blanketed with cabbage leaves in the fall, clotheslines (like mine) bristled with drying fish, the silence of dawn punctuated with the steady, rhythmic pounding of garlic in wooden mortars. I came to love that sound. In a way that I neither had been nor could be, my Korean neighbors were at home.
I had eaten Korean food, of course. My father, a great fan of buffets, particularly admired the spread at VIP, the first grand restaurant in Koreatown, and I had been taken to the Pear Garden, up on La Cienega’s restaurant row, for bulgogi since I was a child. But as Koreatown grew and spread, what was remarkable was the huge range of restaurants, not just noodle shops and barbecue parlors but fish houses and sushi bars, taverns devoted to a specific kind of homemade rice wine and the small dishes, anju, that might be served with it. California-style cafés served pasta with kimchi beurre blanc; underground dives, selling soju and steamed goat, invited you to stack your used dishes on the floor; beatnik coffeehouses owed more to the American ‘60s than to Starbucks. One place, ostensibly famous for its version of old-style buckwheat noodles, did most of its business with Japanese tour groups eager to try the barbecued lion, tiger and hippo fillets the owner managed to procure from game-shooting preserves. Another restaurateur, I recall, slipped powdered deer antlers into everything but the Coca-Cola. More than once — more than a dozen times, actually — I’d sit in a restaurant for 45 minutes or more before a waiter finally “explained” that the kitchen had run out of food.
Years later, home to a reputed 850 places to eat and drink, as well as scores of nightclubs, coffeehouses, billiard parlors, supermarkets and bookstores, Koreatown has matured into one of the great nightlife districts in the world, a veritable restaurant paradise shoehorned right into Los Angeles’ urban core.
When I began my most recent forays into Koreatown, which entailed about 120 restaurant meals over the course of a couple of months, I barely recognized the neighborhood, which has been transformed into a nightlife zone almost as dense as Tokyo’s Roppongi District, a 24-hour neighborhood of neon and giant video screens, alive with the squeals of tweaked-out Honda tuners and bone-stock AMG sedans, the smell of grilling meat, and the bleary eyes of party people who have stayed up till dawn.
High-rise office buildings are being converted into flashy lofts, left and right: My old floor-through apartment now seems impossibly quaint. The area has what may be the most visible contingent of security guards in the Los Angeles area, and practically every restaurant with more than a couple of tables has a secured parking lot, a bouncer and a valet.
Some of the greatest architectural minds in California have obviously expressed themselves here through new and ever more ingenious ways to circumvent the state’s draconian no-smoking laws, which means that even small storefront restaurants have walls that fold away to convert their front rooms into “outdoor” dining areas. Some newly constructed restaurants are basically massive patios wrapped in a thin scrim of infrastructure. (Inadvertently or not, the smoking laws brought about a sort of revival of the indoor-outdoor modernism of the ’50s, except instead of bringing the indoors outside like Neutra or late Frank Lloyd Wright, the architects are bringing the outdoors in, proving that it is indeed possible to make a patio seem like a dark, smoky bar.)
And for the first time since the golden age of Gorky’s, Ship’s and the Atomic Cafe, I’m finding places to go at 3 in the morning, scenes to fall into, the sort of tumult that makes you feel as if you are living in a great international city instead of a sleepy Midwestern town.
FIRE, WALK WITH ME
As you perambulate the streets of late-night Koreatown, you will hear a great deal about something the locals call “fusion” cuisine, which I had always assumed was the Korean version of the sort of East-West crossover cooking popularized by Wolfgang Puck at Chinois and by Suzanne Tracht at the late Jozu. There are undoubtedly wonderful dishes to be invented by introducing fermented bean paste, balloon flower stems and crisp Korean pears into classical French cookery, or even by making a Korean chigae with ingredients like foie gras and quince instead of tofu and pickled turnips. I once had angel hair pasta in a kimchi cream sauce at a now-defunct café on La Brea and thought it could be the start of something big.
But as it is practiced in Koreatown, fusion cuisine is more or less a Korean analogue to the cooking at the Hong Kong–style cafés in Monterey Park, which is to say a menu of the more basic kinds of Korean snack food, sushi perhaps, and American coffee shop food adjusted to the Korean-American palate, and usually served in nightclub-like surroundings. It is a safe bet that nobody ever braved the pounding Korean pop at Intercrew, the Skybar-level snootiness at Bliss, or the neon glare at Palm Tree for the food alone.
Still, there is something about sitting outside by the roaring fire pit at Zip, which is one of the grander examples of the breed, admiring the parade of tight dresses, glancing at the film clips that flash across a sort of architectural fin above the roofline, and nibbling on perfect fried calamari, giant slabs of grilled freshwater eel and California rolls that are only slightly less formidable than softball bats. The real surprise was the ghastly sounding kimchi pancake with cheese — a crisp, tangy, mozzarella-glazed Korean simulacrum of pizza that was in no way inferior to a decent pizza itself. 3855 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 365-6677.
SMOKE GETS IN YOUR THIGHS
A waitress scatters a trowelful of glowing hardwood coals into a pit set in the middle of your table. Above the charcoal goes a greased wire screen; around the pit go a dozen or so dishes of pickled cabbage, candied fish, and the rest of the little appetizers and condiments that come with a Korean barbecue meal.
If you are new to this sort of thing, a waitress will unceremoniously dump raw, marinated short ribs, pork loin, baby octopus onto the grill in front of you, returning periodically to turn the meat when it is sizzled crisp, scissoring it into bite-size chunks, maneuvering it so that your ignorance of cooking times injures the meat no more than absolutely necessary. When a bit of meat is cooked to your liking, wrap it in a scrap of lettuce leaf with perhaps a few shreds of marinated scallion and a schmear of pungent fermented-bean paste. Then repeat.
Soot Bull Jeep is the first Koreatown barbecue restaurant that locals will tell you about, and probably the first they’ll warn you against too. Because while it is noisy and smoky, afloat on the vodka-like Korean rice wine soju, with all the bustle you’d expect in the heart of a great city, the same fragrant fumes that give so much flavor to the meat will have done the same to your pants. Dress accordingly. 3136 W. Eighth St., (213) 387-3865.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH DDUK
The current fad in Korean barbecue restaurants is the style of service called dduk bo sam, which means that along with your heaps of raw short ribs and piles of foliage, you are issued stacks of oiled rice noodles, about the size and shape of beer coasters, with which you can wrap grilled meat into plump little tacos with slivered scallions, raw garlic, chile paste, or a bit of the leftover kimchi from the next table. Shik Do Rak pioneered dduk bo rak in Koreatown, and at dinnertime its tables are filled with diners industriously constructing fancy noodle wraps that would probably be a big hit on Chinese dim sum carts. The main dining room is decorated, incongruously enough, with gnomes, faux trellises and vast photomurals of what look like the flower gardens outside West Virginia’s patrician Greenbrier Hotel. Because after all, nothing stimulates the appetite like grainy pictures of rhododendrons. 2501 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 384-4148.
THE NECK BONE’S CONNECTED TO THE ...
It’s amazing, it really is, the sheer number of Koreatown restaurants devoted to one hangover remedy or another, until you consider the torrents of makkoli and Crown Royal that course through the streets every night. Also, Korean hangover remedies happen to taste really good. Among the best and most restorative of these, as unfortunately we have reason to know, is gamjatang, a sort of thick soup made with potatoes, chile and meaty pork neck bones. Hamjipark, a sticky-table dive down on Pico, does a rather spectacular version of this soup, simmered until the meat has turned almost to jelly and thickened with a brick-red purée of chiles — if you weren’t nursing a hair-of-the-dog shot of soju, you might almost mistake it for a Oaxacan mole colorado. The barbecued pork ribs are not sad to eat either. Hamjipark has a gentrified branch up near the Chapman Market, with the ambiance of an outer-arrondissement sidewalk café, but on Sunday morning, when the roof of your mouth is a killing floor, the grungier Pico restaurant is where you want to be. 4135 W. Pico Blvd., (323) 733-3635; also 3407 W. Sixth St., (213) 365-8773.
FILM AT ELEVEN
Dansungsa is one of those glitches in the time-space continuum that makes us glad to live in Los Angeles, a keyhole to an alternate universe that is almost certainly better, richer than the one we happen to inhabit at the moment. To those of us who cannot read Hangul, the bar is recognizable mostly by the blown-up posters of golden-age Korean movie stars posted outside as well as papering the walls within. If you are not Korean, the valet will give you a quizzical look as you step out of your car. Inside the close quarters of the wood-paneled tavern, a squad of aunties in the open kitchen prod and poke at whole grilling squids and smoking cookpots whose rattling lids can be heard even above the din of the Korean dance music. The walls are streaked with graffiti. The untranslated menu, such as it is, is laminated onto a block of wood. It is as if you have ducked out of Sixth Street into a smoky bar in Seoul.
“This place is supposed to be themed after an old movie theater in Seoul,” says the guy sitting next to you at the counter. “In my opinion, it attracts too many old people. But then again . . . look at these girls!”
Yet Dansungsa may be the friendliest place in Koreatown. In no time at all, a waiter will have you set up with platters of the bar snacks known as anju: maybe that barbecued squid, thick fingers of rice cake glazed with a lip-searing chile sauce, or skewers of grilled shrimp, grilled garlic cloves, or something that looks and tastes very much like a grilled Ball Park Frank. With your soju or beer comes painfully rustic turnip kimchi and a bowl of spicy cabbage soup. Before you leave, you probably will have toasted to the health of the people at the tables on either side of you and eaten a massive, crisp seafood pancake laced with scallions, a plate of steamed baby octopus, or some truly wonderful grilled pork ribs, the bar’s specialty. But don’t aim too high on the food chain: “You want chap chae?” a waiter sneered. “Not here — that’s restaurant food.” 3317 W. Sixth St., (213) 487-9100.
NOODLES FROM A DIFFERENT KITCHEN
Chinese restaurants in Koreatown tend to be pretty different from Chinese restaurants not in Koreatown, weighted toward the sticky and the sweet, big on the deep-frying, and given to a palate-cleanser of raw slivered onions served with hoisin sauce. More to the point, they are some of the only Chinese restaurants in Southern California where the noodles are characteristically pulled by hand, and the spaghetti-shaped strands are stretchy, bouncy things, perfectly al dente, with a slight surface tackiness and a nicely developed wheat flavor, almost good enough to eat by themselves. Mandarin House specializes in chachiang mein, a big bowl of those hand-pulled noodles served in a musky, tar-black sauce made with onions, fermented black beans, and meat — a sauce so popular that you can even buy warm packets of the freshly made goo in the deli cases of a few Koreatown supermarkets. You’ll find chachiang mein practically everywhere in Koreatown, but the version at Mandarin House is supreme. 3074 W. Eighth St., (213) 386-8976.
In a quiet, almost deserted mall at midday, you walk past fancy dress shops, bridal salons, an herb shop and a bakery. In the small, rustic restaurant at one end of the gallery, Chung Moo Kim Bop House, you slide onto a bench. Seconds later, a waitress sets in front of you a bowl of pickled radish, a bowl of spicy broth, a bowl of crunchy tentacles in a sweet chile sauce, and an oblong dish on which 10 slender sushi rolls — kim bop — line up like so many laver-green soldiers. The rice is significantly less seasoned than Japanese sushi rice, if at all, and the sticky seaweed wrappers are not particularly well toasted. You might fail to see the point of the dish. Still, 10 minutes from now, after you have experienced every possible permutation of tentacle, kim bop and broth, you may well worship the stuff. If you are honest with yourself, raw sea urchin eggs weren’t that appealing the first time around, either. 3030 W. Olympic Blvd., No. 108, (213) 382-8277.
BEAN THERE, DONE THAT
My friend Caryl has always maintained that So Kong Dong was the best tofu restaurant in Koreatown. I have always plumped for Beverly Soon Tofu Restaurant across the street. So Kong Dong seems almost Soviet in its appearance, a low-ceilinged dining room bathed in a singularly unappealing fluorescent glare. Beverly looks as if its proprietor went overboard on the burl-log furniture for sale by the side of the road in Topanga. So Kong Dong serves its rice in superheated stone pots that give it a subtly smoky flavor. Beverly’s rice is served in the same stainless-steel bowls you find everywhere in Koreatown. So Kong Dong includes briny pickled clams among its panchan. Beverly’s panchan is pretty much by the book.
So Kong Dong’s signature tofu casserole, soontofu, is a marvelous thing, bubbling and sputtering in its red-hot bowl, robustly flavored with shrimp and clams and oysters and beef, walloped with chile and garlic. Beverly’s soontofu is a little tamer, the broth more briny than complex, like an austere French bouillon as compared to a concentrated California-style stock fortified with tomato paste and fistfuls of herbs. So Kong Dong would seem to win on points. Yet the tofu itself, freshly made every day at both restaurants, is smooth and supple at Beverly, barely gelled blocks of pure, subtle flavor that melt into an elusive milkiness in your mouth, where at So Kong Dong the tofu tends to be kind of . . . curdy. You’ll still find me at Beverly. But I wouldn’t blame you if you ended up across the street with Caryl instead. So Kong Dong, 2716 W. Olympic Blvd., No. 104, (213) 380-3737; Beverly Soon Tofu Restaurant, 2717 W. Olympic Blvd., No. 108 (213) 380-1113.
More than a dozen years after its opening, the Safety Zone Café is still a Smithsonian-quality masterpiece of bad 1970s restaurant design, down to the distressed bronze-look plastic, and the frothy colored drinks that look alarmingly like Brandy Alexanders . . . all that’s missing is an engraved Oly mirror or two. A hidden club within the restaurant supposedly borrows its motifs from the lower-school Korean classroom. A tent in the back, the hip place to be, is home to fair-to-middling codfish stew, very decent dumpling soup, and okay bulgogi. A dozen years later, the specialty is probably steak and potatoes, done more in the style of a Midwestern roadhouse than a charcoal pit in Seoul. But you’ve got to give the Safety Zone some props: In Paxton, Nebraska, there is just no way you’re going to be able to order a platter of sautéed octopus on the side. 3630 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 387-7595.
SOUP IS GOO FOOD
In Seoul, there is reputedly a Hangover Alley, a narrow downtown street lined on both sides with restaurants dedicated to the art of the curative tonics known collectively as gomtang. In Koreatown, there is Jinju Gomtang, a 24-hour café devoted to pale bone broths garnished with oxtail or sliced brisket, as bland as oatmeal and twice as soothing. But the real specialty of the place, a soup you might consider having for lunch even if you weren’t on the wrong side of a bottle of dong dong ju, is the spicy haejanguk, a pottage of cabbage, chiles, scallions, garlic in a funky-fresh cow-part broth, garnished with little clots of blood and ready to come alive with the addition of a little sea salt and a lot of the restaurant’s house-made chile paste. 610 S. Western Ave., (213) 383-6789.
THE CHOSUN PEOPLE
For decades, Woo Lae Oak on Western was the favorite Korean restaurant of people who didn’t like Korean food all that much, a fancy place where they could convince themselves that galbi wasn’t all that different from an ordinary steak dinner. (Mostly because it wasn’t: The restaurant’s pallid galbi very much resembled the London broil at any number of steak houses.) Now that the Koreatown Woo Lae Oak is on hiatus for a year or so, the conservative Koreatown choice is probably Chosun Galbi, which has the patio-side glamour of a Beverly Hills garden party, granite tables, gorgeous waitresses, and expensive, well-marbled meat that glows as pinkly as a Tintoretto cherub. Make sure to throw some shrimp on the barbie, too — the pricey little beasties crisp up like a dream. 3330 W. Olympic Blvd., (323) 734-3330.
Imagine a Korean pub shoehorned into the fanciest restaurant in Los Angeles circa 1953, complete with the lawn jockeys at the top of the stairs and oil paintings of earls above the oxblood leather banquettes. The food, you understand, is not exactly the point at the Prince, which seems to specialize in sugary stir-fries and American dishes that might have been inspired by Quad Cities Rotary banquet menus. The basic unit of currency here is the kimchi pancake, a thin mass of egg batter laced with fermented cabbage, lashed together with scallions, then fried to an exquisite, oily crispness. Kimchi pancakes come free with your drinks, which makes sense, because the greasy heat of the things is enough to power you through an entire double-size bottle of Korean Hite beer. 3198 1/2 W. Seventh St., (213) 389-2007.
Han Bat, hidden on a side street of the Western Avenue drag, is a shrine to the cult of Korean beef soup, sullongtang, to the extent that there is barely no other food served, no other food needed. Good sullongtang, which is completely without fat, is an incandescent, glowing white, the result of long, patient cooking and the essence of many bones. Before it was largely supplanted by Vietnamese pho in Koreatown, sullongtang, which also carries a payload of thin noodles, sliced brisket, and various organs if you want it that way, was as locally popular as ramen is in Little Tokyo. The soup is unsalted: You season it to taste with a half-teaspoon or so of coarse salt from a container on the table. You also add loads of freshly chopped scallion greens, which soften quickly in the hot broth, and possibly a spoonful of the chile paste, which tints the soup flamingo pink. Flamingo pink: the color of victory. 4163 W. Fifth St., (213) 383-9499.
WATCHING THE PHO FLY
As delicious as a bowl of sullongtang can be, it is incontrovertible: The sharp mineral smack of long-boiled beef bones is distinctly not to everybody’s taste. Gently spiced Vietnamese pho, on the other hand, may be the greatest beef-bone soup in the world, mellowed with cinnamon and star anise, roundly meaty from long simmering, and garnished with a lavish variety of cattle parts and a salad bowl’s-worth of herbs. So it was probably only a matter of time before the Korean community clasped pho to its bosom, and more than a dozen Vietnamese noodle shops, most of them operating 24 hours a day, speckle the boulevards of Koreatown. None of these pho shops is quite up to the standards of Golden Deli or Pho 79, but there are worse places to end up at 4 in the morning than at one of the various locations of Pho 2000, soaking up the excess soju with a warm bowl of noodles. 215 N. Western Ave., (323) 461-5845, and other locations.
To connoisseurs, a restaurant is best judged by the quality of its panchan, the little dishes of kimchi and other preserved foods laid out at the beginning of a Korean meal. And panchan rarely come any better than they do at Sa Rit Gol — the candied dried fish, the crisp water kimchi of radish, the chile-marinated squid, even the ordinary cabbage kimchi, are admired by the kind of old-line Korean traditionalists who insist on making their own kimchi, miso, and soy sauce, at home. But even if your own exposure to panchan extends no further than a couple of excursions to Soot Bull Jeep, you are still likely to recognize the focused tanginess and the careful, freshness-preserving fermentation of the kimchi at Sa Rit Gol as extraordinarily good. Sa Rit Gol is indeed one of the best restaurants in Koreatown, a rustic joint still decorated with raw wood and Korean beer posters, full of two-fisted drinkers, locally famous for its spicy pork barbecue, grilled belly pork and grilled pike — classic drinking food — as well as bubbling crab casseroles, black-cod soups and braised shiitake mushrooms with spinach. 3189 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 387-0909.
OLD KING COAL
Natural-charcoal barbecue, which is to say the atavistic pleasure of grilling meat over live coals, is traditionally kind of a cheap thrill. Such barbecuing as practiced at fancier Korean restaurants is usually done over well-ventilated gas grills, which are much less likely to leave your favorite blouse perforated with tiny holes like a silk colander. The newish, marble-encrusted Tahoe Galbi, another of those Koreatown restaurants that seem to be all patio, may be the first place in town where it is possible to enjoy both the superb meat characteristic of the best Korean restaurants and the smoky kick of live-fire cooking — and when you bite into the galbi, Korean short ribs, they flood your mouth with sweet juice. 3986 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 365-9000.
THEATER OF BLOOD
In this part of town, the word sundae on a menu refers less often to a banana split than it does to the famous Korean blood sausages, mildly seasoned links of ox gore shot through with transparent vermicelli and served fried or boiled. Ham Kyung Do serves nothing but this Korean sundae, usually floating in a rich, extremely livery soup salted with chunks of assorted cattle organs. And as at an ice cream social, sometimes nothing but sundae will do. 955 S. Vermont Ave., (213) 388-2013.
Korean sushi occupies something of an alternate universe, where raw fish is served up in truck-driver slabs, pungent flavors are prized, and drinks are remarkably strong. If you can imagine relishing a bit of raw tilefish wrapped in a lettuce leaf with sliced jalapeño chiles, a raw garlic clove and a smear of stinky bean paste, Korean sushi may be for you. (I happen to love the stuff.) Japanese sushi bacchanals may involve a few exquisite grams of a severely endangered mullet; Korean ones tend to include the meat from a massive, whole flatfish that was alive at the beginning of dinner service.
There is a lot of Korean-style sushi in Koreatown, and I have had more than decent meals at Dok Sun, across from the La Curacao department store, at Haneda Sushi on Wilshire and at the late Living Fish Center, but Bu San is my favorite Korean sushi place — tell one of the chefs you are interested in Korean-style sushi, and he’ll set you up with a meal from the fourth dimension: sashimi with sliced chiles and whole cloves of raw garlic; raw sea cucumber in fermented bean paste; tuna with kimchi and live halibut sliced into sashimi before your eyes. Awesome. 201 N. Western Ave., (323) 871-0703.
There are many reasons to fall in love with OB Bear, a venerable Koreatown tavern across the street from Southwestern Law School. You may admire the spicy squid served with noodles, the kebabs, or the roast chicken. You may be intrigued with the bar’s charming version of buffalo wings, which are as sticky and peppery and oily as the original, only more so. Something about the setup of the place seems to encourage the intake of intoxicating liquids, and it is easy to find yourself ordering frankly unwise amounts of whiskey, or personal kegs of beer so large that they dwarf the rather small tabletops, which can make any evening more entertaining. We are shallow and easily amused. To us, it is enough that this cheerful den of inebriation is located directly below the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. 3002 W. Seventh St., (213) 480-4910.
SHAKE YOUR THING
A particular version of postmodernism is being played out at Nandarang, which, in its indoor-outdoor architecture, its video screens and its neo-retro-futuristic furniture, is more or less a California take on the Korean version of a Japanese update of the sort of midcentury Scandinavian design that was probably riffing on California to begin with. Tables are crowded with both French fries and plates of kimchi, fizzy soju drinks and frothing vats of Bud. But as the Koreatown answer to Pop’s Chocklit Shop in Betty and Veronica’s Riverdale, what Nandarang mostly has is mobs of teenagers out way past their bedtime, grooving on dance-club records and consuming dangerous quantities of the café’s signature coffee-banana shakes. 3811 W. Sixth St., (213) 388-8513.
No discussion of Koreatown cuisine would be complete without mention of bingsu, an overwrought construction of sweet beans, canned fruit cocktail, ice cream, whipped cream and crushed ice, just to mention the basics. A properly made bingsu, which will often be larger than your head, brings casual conversation to a halt. Practically every café in Koreatown has bingsu somewhere on its menu. But the version served at Ice Kiss, a bingsu specialist near the Chapman Market, is garnished with a handful of Technicolor confetti that look and taste an awful lot like Fruity Pebbles. If you’re going to eat like a 6-year-old, you might as well go all the way. 3407 W. Sixth St., (213) 382-4776.
MUNG THE MAGNIFICENT
Kobawoo, which started out as a greasy spoon almost two decades ago, has mellowed into a Koreatown institution, a polished, respectable destination restaurant with some of the best food in the neighborhood at prices almost unbelievably low. Kobawoo has a decent chicken soup, and it is a great place to try the standard called bossam, a sort of combo plate of oysters, sliced pork belly and ultraspicy kimchi. The funky communal pot of bean-paste chigae, or stew, which follows the entrée at a lot of restaurants, is spicy and delicious. The pig’s feet have their fans. But it’s still the home-style pindaeduk, mung-bean pancakes, that keep drawing me back to Kobawoo — the pancakes are ethereal beneath their thin veneer of crunch, melting away almost instantly in the mouth like a sort of intriguingly flavored polenta. 698 S. Vermont Ave., (213) 389-7300.
Near the cash register at the bakery Cake Town Garden is a glass warming case, filled with what look like the most beautiful jelly doughnuts you have ever seen: expertly fried, a gorgeous golden brown, and flat as a stack of CDs. They smell great, too — the folks at Cake Town are nothing if not masters of all things doughy. But when you finally get one of them out to the car, you may be in for a surprise. Because despite their appearance, these babies are not filled with jelly, custard or even sweetened beans, but a cabbagey vegetable stew. Oddly, this is not disappointing. 551 S. Western Ave., (213) 480-1010.
On weekends, the line to get into Dae Sung Oak usually winds out onto the sidewalk, and the tabletop barbecue, the kimchi stew and the naengmyon, cold buckwheat noodles with raw stingray, served in the posh upstairs dining room are pretty good. Unusually for Koreatown, where restaurants tend to be inward-looking fortresses, there is a view out onto the busy street below. The panchan includes little bowls of spicy pickled crab. But the soups here, the mainstay of the downstairs dining room, are even better than the upstairs galbi, especially a version of sullongtang that fixes the specific mellowness of beef brisket with the loving exactness Raphael once applied to memorializing his lover’s smile. 2585 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 386-1600.
HAVE A RICE DAY
Bibimbap, a dish of rice mixed at the table with vegetables, chile paste and perhaps a fried egg, is reputed to be the Korean staple most suited to the Western palate, the dish that may someday be as popular among Californians as the pizza or the teriyaki stick. Yet some of the worst Asian meals I have ever eaten have come from Koreatown bibimbap specialists, including the mall restaurant whose 20-item bibimbap tasted like leftovers scraped from a fast-food salad bar, and a popular bibimbap chain whose gooey specialty proved uniquely inedible. The kitchen-sink aspect of the dish tends to play into the worst tendencies of a particular type of cook. But in the right restaurant, bibimbap can be fairly spectacular, the flavors of the vegetables heightened and melded by the heat of the chile paste, the different intensities of crunch becoming almost contrapuntal under the teeth. I especially like the variation called dol sot bibimbap, served in an ultraheated stone pot that creates a crisp, slightly scorched crust where the mixture hits the stone and infuses the rice with a subtly pervasive smokiness. The bibimbap at Jeon Ju, a restaurant from the southern area of Korea where the dish originated, is perfect. And don’t miss Jeon Ju’s spicy cod stew, which may be the best in Koreatown. 2716 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 386-5678.
Koreatown is blessed with more all-night restaurants than the rest of Los Angeles put together: noodle parlors and soup dens, greasy spoons, unremarkable grills and after-hours joints where soju sometimes mysteriously makes its way into teacups. But at 4 in the morning, Hodori, named for the dweeby cartoon tiger that was the mascot for the ’88 Seoul Olympics, may as well be the only place in town: brightly lit as any McDonald’s, hazy with steam from the kitchen, and jammed with young people who sit 12 to a table, sobering themselves up with kimchi fried rice. For better or for worse, Hodori is the Canter’s of Koreatown. 1001 S. Vermont Ave., No. 102, (213) 383-3554.
We have already discussed, I believe, the kimchi pancake, the seafood pancake, the mung bean pancake, the scallion pancake, and the potato pancake with a single chrysanthemum leaf impressed upon its bosom. But as Dr. Freud might have said had he lived in Koreatown instead of dank old Vienna, sometimes a pancake is just a pancake. At these moments, we are always comforted by the knowledge that at Koo’s Grill, a sort of shed set up near the entrance to the California Supermarket on Western Avenue at Fifth Street, a buck will buy us what appears to be a plain, old, ordinary pancake, with a sweet bean or two in the batter, sure, but drizzled with syrup and served mouth- sizzlingly hot on a napkin.
DUCK, YOU SUCKER!
You will find no duck recipes in any of the dozen or so Korean cookbooks I own, no mention of duck in the guides to Seoul cafés, no duck on most Koreatown menus. Still, there is Il San Duck to consider, a restaurant that not only serves duck but serves nothing but duck: spicy duck noodles, spicy duck stew and, above all, duck stuffed with nuts, roots and other various goodies before being slow-baked in clay. 3700 W. Olympic Blvd., (323) 735-9100.
Ten years ago, there were maybe two or three places to get great gook soo, the thin, handcut, wheaten noodles customarily served in a stock based on dried anchovies and garnished with seaweed, kimchi or bits of meat, maybe a few chunks of boiled potato. Gook soo may be the ultimate Korean comfort food. For years I satisfied most of my gook soo yearnings at Ma Dang Gook Soo (869 S. Western Ave., 213-487-6008), where the texture of the noodles resembles perfect Italian fettuccine. But recently, my loyalties have begun to shift toward Wang Simri Noodle House, where the noodles have a firmer bite, the broth has a delicacy it is hard to believe derives from dried anchovies, and it is possible to order the noodles tinted with green tea, which softens their texture but adds a subtle bitterness that is not at all unpleasant. The mandoo, herb-stuffed Korean dumplings, are pretty good too. 474 N. Western Ave., (323) 467-2900.
HANDS ON DECKLE
Food fads sweep like brazier-fed wildfires through Koreatown’s barbecue scene, which may be one of the most competitive restaurant environments on Earth. A few years ago, nobody could get enough of coconut-shell charcoal on which to grill their bulgogi. Last year saw the rise of the rice noodle wrappers called dduk bo sam. The year before, I think it was all about the Canadian black pigs. The new meat of choice these days seems to be deckle, that fatty cap of beef that nestles up to a steer’s brisket, and the cut of choice for pastrami. In Korean restaurants, deckle is shaved into thin, pale curls and cooked on a custom-purposed tabletop grill shaped like an inverted iron cone. Deckle sizzling with onions gives off one of the great cooking smells of all time, a distillation of what could be thought of as Philadelphia-diner funk, and when you dress the meat with chiles, wrap it in a rice noodle and drag it through a dipping sauce, you’ve got one of the great all-time mouthfuls of food.
The venerable Soowon Kalbi does a decent job with deckle, and Shik Do Rak includes deckle in most of its combination dinners. Still, Castle BBQ, a fine edifice built on the twin virtues of deckle and Seagram’s Crown Royal, is a veritable palace of fatty meat — and dduk bo sam. Pop an extra Lipitor or two and try the combo of deckle and pork belly, a cholesterol feat for the ages. 473 N. Western Ave., No. 1, (323) 467-3813.
Oddly enough, the best part of a meal at Chin-Go-Gae is not the goat soup, a bubbling orange cauldronful of kid meat, chile and as many fresh sesame leaves as you can stuff down into the broth. Just after the meal, the waitress enriches the dregs of the soup with an egg and some rice, and cooks it down to a thick, goaty porridge seared black and crisp at the edges. Incredible. 3063 W. Eighth St., (213) 480-8071.
Samgyetang is yet another in the long line of Korean tonic soups: a small hen, usually stuffed with sticky rice, jujubes and maybe a little ginseng, simmered in a mild chicken broth. You could consider it the Korean equivalent of Jewish chicken-in-a-pot, if you could imagine a matzoh ball actually stuffed into a chicken. It’s pretty easy to find samgyetang in Koreatown — Kobawoo and the genteel diner Matinee have good versions. But almost everybody in the neighborhood will point you to the chic, new L.A. Chicken Center, an all-chicken restaurant that has practically made a religion out of its clean-lined, classic rendering of the dish. L.A. Chicken Center also serves a take on the roasted Zankou-style bird as well as jang dori chang, a sweet, spicy chicken stew flavored with citrus peel and what must be a double handful of finely minced garlic. Cock a doodle doo. 3400 W. Eighth St., (213) 380-0256.
Through the streets of Koreatown, foaming, unchecked rivers of OB and Hite beer flow. So it is only fitting that Koreatown play host to a brewery of its own, a brew-pub sporting enormous vats of Koreatown Ale and Sunset Red, as well as concert-volume Madonna videos and enough spinning, flashing lights to make Disco Stu a happy man indeed. The menu of fried calamari and cheeseburgers could make Rosen Brewery more or less the T.G.I. Friday’s of Koreatown, except that as far as I know, T.G.I. Friday’s has never served much in the way of spicy sea snail salad. 400 S. Western Ave., (213) 388-0061.
O-Dae San is undoubtedly the best fish restaurant in Koreatown, a vast, sleek space with a Korean-style sushi bar running the length of the dining room, waitresses in traditional dress, and a parking lot filled with more $150,000 Mercedes sedans than you’ll find anywhere this side of Stuttgart. There are subtleties to O-Dae San’s long menu that we wouldn’t even try to address. Because, peasants that we are, we can never tear ourselves away from the ever-fascinating al bap, a big bowl of sushi rice frosted — frosted! — with a half-dozen different kinds of fish eggs, laid out in contrasting streaks radiating from the center of the bowl like rays from the sun. Plus, you get to say: al bap. But still, we know nothing goes better with a brimming glass of soju than something like O-Dae San’s hwe do bap, which is to say bits of impeccably fresh sashimi topped with vinegared slivers of cucumber, strips of toasted seaweed, black sesame seeds, tossed at the table with sweet bean sauce and a raw egg. We may be peasants, but we’re not crazy. 2889 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 383-9800.
LOVE, PYONGYANG STYLE
If you are nostalgic for the days of old-fashioned Communist hospitality, you could do worse than to visit this Los Angeles branch of Morangak, a North Korean restaurant popular in Seoul. Nobody will bother to seat you, and one suspects that the waiter who does eventually show up at your table has just lost a game of rock, paper, scissors. You wouldn’t think it was possible to disdainfully toss down a heavy bowl of lava-hot kimchi stew without actually injuring anyone at the table, but these guys are pros. Still — there are those pheasant dumplings. And the complex fragrance of the wild mushroom soup. And the severely attractive bibimbap. This could be one of the best meals you’ll never love. 3377 Wilshire Blvd., No. 100, (213) 381-8243.
The basic unit of consumption at Toad is the combination meal for two, a sort of porcine tasting menu designed to take you on a tour of the tiny black pig and all of its constituent parts: red-cooked trotters, sautéed pork skin with vegetables, maybe a simmered innard or two. But you are here for barbecued pork belly, the meaty, streaky, especially succulent strips of fat meat that you sizzle into crispness yourself on a tabletop grill. When they are crisp, you roll the squares of belly into a slippery square of rice noodle with scallions, swab the bundles with what appears to be an elegant dust made from powdered beans, and dip them into a chile-spiked Korean ponzu sauce. The little belly rolls are fantastic things, spicy and sweet, soft and crisp, and crammed with enough vegetables to make even Dr. Dean Ornish smile. 4503 Beverly Blvd., (323) 460-7037.
Han River, named after the waterway that cuts through Seoul, is a nice place, with inexpensive lunches, a delicious panchan of fried fish cake, and an urbane roster of sophisticated dishes that go especially well with soju or even bekseju, which is soju flavored with ginseng. The monkfish sautéed with bean sprouts and a pickled kiwi-like Korean fruit is compelling; the iced baby octopus noodles are fine. But what brings in the crowds is Han River’s truly wonderful version of bossam, a dish of steamed, pressed pork, flanked by lightly pickled leaves of cabbage, a fiery root-vegetable kimchi, and an amazing dipping sauce that involves vinegar, chiles and what appear to be highly salted fish hatchlings no larger than the period at the end of this sentence. 2561 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 388-5999.
Korean cooking, at least as it is presented in Los Angeles, is not an especially refined cuisine. Korean restaurants here tend to be either homey or raffish, Mom’s cooking or sophisticated bar snacks. Nobody seems especially concerned with royal delicacies from the Koryo empire: Korean restaurants, even the expensive ones, serve people’s food. The Kaesong-style restaurant Yongsusan may be in a class by itself, an elegant warren of discreet, private dining rooms, a redoubt of what seems very much like Korean haute cuisine. I have never tasted anything like the bo sam kimchi here, a green, round cabbage that has been hollowed out and stuffed, then wrapped up again and left to ferment whole. Roast pork is almost Italian in its voluptuousness, noodles are light as air, and the oyster porridge is divine. 950 S. Vermont Ave., (213) 388-3042.
Desserts are pretty uncommon in Korean restaurants, coffee is rare, after-dinner liqueurs all but unknown. Luckily, Koreatown is richly endowed with cafés, although places to loiter in comfortable chairs with expensive cups of coffee are far more common than places to catch a quick jolt. Koffea (610 S. Berendo St., 213-427-1441) is a classic Korean coffeehouse, with beautiful chinaware, a ton of hidden rooms, and a wide selection of syrupy, freshly brewed Korean fruit teas — we like the ginger. Mr. Coffee (537 S. Western Ave., No. G, 213-389-6767) is decorated like a ’20s Paris salon, with faux Magrittes painted on almost every wall surface, and absurdly oversize chairs. The last time we visited Antique (3465 W. Sixth St., 213-383-4994), we felt as if the only antiques in the room were us: It’s a good place to scope out 22-year-olds with unbelievably fashionable hair. Montecarlo (3450 W Sixth St., No. 111, 213-389-4553), open 24 hours, is popular with USC students and insomniacs.
Copyright 2004 LA Weekly