Jonathan Gold's 60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know
|Tender, carmalized barbecued pork ribs at Baek Hwa Jung.|
If you stroll down Olympic in the early evening, the sweet, burnt-pork vapors drifting from Baek Hwa Jung are enough to make you weep, or at least to break into a happy trot toward the source of that magnificent smoke. Almost every restaurant in Koreatown specializes in one dish or another. It is our good fortune that a couple decided to specialize in daeji galbi, barbecued pork ribs that lean into your second bottle of soju like a motorcyclist grinding into a curve. Even if you prefer the pork at Hamji Park, the other great Koreatown rib specialist, it is hard to resist these tender, caramelized, char-flecked bones. Supplement your ribs with an order of the DIY pork-belly wrap gool bossam, which is the second best version in town after Kobawoo House. 3929 W. Olympic Blvd.; (323) 935-5554.
There are some people who believe that soontofu -- soft, freshly made bean curd served as the main ingredient of a Korean jjigae -- originated in L.A.'s Koreatown and made it back to Seoul as an import. There are some people who maintain that there was always something like soontofu in Korea. What nobody denies is that the popularity of the dish started here, at Beverly Soontofu, and spread eastward, bringing health and happiness to the motherland. A bowl of soontofu looks less like food than like a special effect, a heaving, bright-red mass in a superheated cauldron, which spurts geysers, spits like a lake of volcanic lava and broadcasts a fine red mist of chile and broth that tints anything within six inches of the bowl a pale, lustrous pink. Get it with clams. 2717 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 380-1113.
Anne Fishbein Masan's monkfish stew contains sea squirts, which explode with iodine-y liquid when you bite into them.
Like many Koreatown seafood restaurants, Masan is well known for its live seafood, bubbling displays of abalone, prawns, sea urchin, octopus and eel, which sometimes seem closer to Marineland than to the timid aquaria in Cantonese banquet halls. But Masan is named for a southern coastal city whose streets are lined with restaurants specializing in agujjim, monkfish stew. It is nearly inconceivable to come here without trying a seething bowl of the stuff, spiked with fresh bean sprouts and as much chile as you can stand, and flavored with a handful of chopped scallions and a few sea squirts, peculiar invertebrates that explode into rich, iodine-tinged liquid when you chomp them. The simmered fish is chewy, almost meaty -- less a poor man's lobster than a kind of marine pork. 2851 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 388-3314.
It should be noted that practically every bar in Koreatown serves its own version of hot wings, which, as any buffalo-wing aficionado can attest, speed the consumption of beer like nothing else on Earth. But OB Bear, a venerable Koreatown tavern across the street from Southwestern Law School, serves lots of beer, just amazing amounts of beer, sometimes in the form of minikegs that dwarf the rather small tabletops. And while the whole chicken, which I would guess was double-fried from the glossy tautness of the skin, and the spicy stir-fried squid are nothing to complain about, what keeps the suds flowing are the wings, as sticky and peppery and oily as could be wished for by Duffman himself. 3002 W. Seventh St.; (213) 480-4910.
Pork neck soup
I have been a judge at Korean barbecue contests where I felt like disqualifying myself from the pork round. The distinctive herbal snap and the caramel-y butteriness of the Hamji Park pig was unmistakable among the entries, and I was pretty sure the contest was over before it began. Yet the barbecued ribs, as good as they are, are only the second-best reason to visit Hamji Park. You will see a heaping platter of them on every table -- but right next to the steaming tureen of gamjatang, a thick, scarlet soup made with potatoes, chile and meaty pork neck bones, simmered until the flesh has turned almost to jelly: There is a strong family resemblance to a Oaxacan mole colorado. The Hamji Park gamjatang has its detractors, mostly people grumpy that it costs about twice as much as other decent versions of the soup, but on Sunday morning, when the roof of your mouth is a killing floor, it is hard to put a price on comfort. 3407 W. Sixth St.; (213) 365-8773.
San nak ji
A single octopus, dramatically set off by theatrical lighting in an aquarium, is a masterpiece of rippling muscle and balletic grace, beautiful even in the way it rips open a scallop. So it makes a certain sense that san nak ji, the chopped, still-moving tentacles of a humanely dispatched octopus, ranks first among the Koreatown exotica that aficionados are expected to seek out and enjoy. The tentacles may not be technically alive -- it's a chicken-with-its-head-cut-off-thing -- but they are closer to it than you may be comfortable with: sometimes barely motile but occasionally quite lively; fat, wriggly things that escape onto the table or climb up your chopsticks nearly to your knuckle. You may appreciate the sesame oil-salt dip at Hwal A Kwang Jang not just because it tastes good but because the suckers on the tentacles are still fully functional, and the coating of slippery oil prevents them from maintaining a grip on your tongue or the roof of your mouth. Is it worth it? It can be -- meaty, slightly nutty, definitely alive. But I don't see it replacing cocktail peanuts anytime soon. 730 S. Western Ave.; (213) 386-6688.
If your only experience with intestines involved the chitlins at a Juneteenth picnic, the Koreatown obsession with the things may be a little hard to understand. You find intestines everywhere here, both cow and pig: boiled and put onto combination plates, heaped next to the brisket at all-you-can-eat barbecue places, stuck into soup at bars, sautÃ©ed with chile paste, even roasted and served as a free snack with drinks. Korean preparations emphasize the organ's luxurious fattiness, the crispness, not the funkiness. It's not Fear Factor, it's bar eats. A lot of menus offer not just intestines but a half-dozen different cuts of intestine. But, as in all things, you are probably best off with a specialist. And the barbecue restaurant Byul Gobchang is the center of all things beef intestine, with a devoted clientele and a menu that reads like a dissection manual -- the chewy, delicious cylinders of grilled small intestine pack astonishing amounts of garlic. As long as you're here, you might as well get the combination plate, which includes not just choice bits of large intestine and small intestine but also abomasum, the rarely seen fourth stomach of the cow. 3819 W. Sixth St.; (213) 739-0321.
I keep thinking of the dumplings the parents eat near the beginning of Miyazaki's Spirited Away: The king mandoo at Pao Jao are so large, the dimpling on top so exaggerated, that the fluffy, steamy Korean bao look more like something out of a cartoon than they do something you might actually eat for lunch. The filling, I'm pretty sure, involves pork, garlic, glass noodles, garlic, greens and garlic -- just the thing to power a shopping trip at the mall. While you're at Pao Jao, pick up an order of the brilliant shrimp dumplings, too. In the food court of Koreatown Plaza, 928 S. Western Ave.; (213) 385-1881.
An aging fad? Very well, an aging fad. But still: Chuncheon Dakgalbi, a very nice place. A steel pan appears; a flame is lit; what looks like five pounds of cabbage and sweet potato begins to steam over the tabletop burner. The pan starts to bubble, and for the first time you can see the scarlet layer of chicken under the vegetables. A waiter comes over to flip the mass. You wonder if the included dduk, thick rice noodles, are ready to eat. Chile sauce is applied. The cabbage melts down to nothing. The sauce caramelizes. You may eat. Dakgalbi is more meat than salad, more sweet than hot, more chewy than crisp. When you are finished, or almost so, the waiter restarts the fire, squirts some oil in the pan, fries an egg in it, then mixes in your leftovers with rice and a handful of minced Korean herbs and lets it sit until the bottom develops a crunchy crust. This is widely considered to be the best part. 703 S. Vermont Ave.; (213) 388-0285.