Jonathan Gold's 60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know
|The clientele that eats Feng Mao's mutton kebabs is Korean, though the food is Chinese.|
Feng Mao isn't a Korean restaurant. It is a restaurant where northeastern Chinese cooks prepare the Beijing version of Xinxiang barbecue for a Korean-speaking clientele. It is Muslim-style cooking accompanied by little dishes of kimchi and presented in a pork-intensive, alcohol-intensive dining room. It's the rough, rustic food of nomads, cooked on tabletop grills in the middle of a megalopolis, in a room blued with fragrant clouds of charred meat, burnt chile and cumin, and hardwood charcoal. What you want are mutton kebabs, as many as you can afford: lozenges of rich meat interspersed with tiny cubes of lamb fat that turn crisp and lubricate the meat as it cooks. Even the existence of Feng Mao feels improbable, one of those cross-cultural carom shots that only seems to make sense within the context of Los Angeles. 414 S. Western Ave.; (213) 388-9299.
Is there ever a wrong time for jajangmyun, or jjajangmyeon, chachiangmian, or zha jiang mian? The divine crankcase sludge of black bean paste, meat and melted onions is as delicious in August as it is in December, and the hand-pulled noodles that traditionally complete the rest of the dish are not to be despised -- although despised the Korean version is, mostly by Chinese who cannot fathom the turbocharging of the Shandong classic. But although player-haters have been issuing downhill alerts on the place for years, I am loyal to the chewy, pungent, ink-black sludge at the venerable Mandarin House, which is still neck-snappingly good after more than 15 years -- although I have recently changed my allegiance to the branch location in the Koreatown Plaza. 928 S. Western Ave.; (213) 386-4588.
Anne Fishbein Grilled corvina at Olympic Cheonggukjang.
Cheonggukjang, a thick soup made with the fermented Korean bean paste also called cheonggukjang, has an aroma that has been compared to ripe French cheeses, unwashed jockstraps and the city of Vernon -- a Korean equivalent of Japanese natto with a piquancy that even connoisseurs of durian and Taiwanese stinky tofu think is slightly over the top. Once the cheonggukjang is in your lungs, you may be thinking more about survival than you are about lunch. No non-Korean can possibly eat that soup, you may be told -- even at Olympic Cheonggukjang, its Los Angeles temple. It is deep culture. Yet there it is, in a heated black bowl, slippery whole beans bobbing alongside herbs and cubes of tofu. It is your own private fumarole: crimson, smoking and alive. The trick is to gulp the thick fluid as quickly as if it were your first shot of whiskey. The cliché with such foods is that the smell is more fearsome than the taste. Cheonggukjang -- which does have a lovely flavor, a little like toasted barley -- isn't like that. Because after the third bite, and maybe after the second, it takes over your body like a mischevious, animist spirit, making it impossible to concentrate on anything but its presence bubbling up from your skin. 2528 W. Olympic Blvd., #104; (213) 480-1107.
It would take sages far wiser than I to discover why this sputtering mass of corn, mayonnaise and melted cheese is associated with Koreatown bars rather than with Paula Deen. It's a bit of cultural randomness, bubbling in its red-hot iron dish, often sharing table space with things like country-fried chicken gizzards and apple soju in an exoticized tableau of NASCAR Americana. I'm not sure anyone has ever favored a Koreatown bar because of the excellence of its corn cheese. Like electricity or tap water, it's just there. But when you unaccountably find yourself at a place like Toe Bang -- because, Toe Bang -- it sometimes comes down to you and corn cheese against the world. In Chapman Plaza, 3465 W. Sixth St.; (213) 387-4905.
Goat fried rice
You will, of course, be going to Chin-Go-Gae to eat the famous black-goat soup, a frothy, orange cauldron of kid meat, chile and as many fresh gaenip leaves as you can cram into the simmering broth. The goat is formidable. But what everybody likes best is that moment just after the meal, when a waitress enriches the dregs of the soup with a raw egg and some rice, then lets it cook down into a thick, profoundly goaty porridge whose seared edges become black, salty and crisp. Incredible. 3063 W. Eighth St.; (213) 480-8071.