Jonathan Gold's 60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know
|Marvelling at the bulgogi ssam at LaOn.|
Before there was much of a Korean presence in the United States, when you were more likely to see Korean cooking on U.N. Day than you were in an actual restaurant, the emblematic dish was probably gujeolpan, a sectioned platter with crepes in the middle and finely slivered garnishes -- egg, meat, vegetables -- in fitted containers along the sides. It is gorgeous, a real classic of Joseon royal cookery. It is also the dullest thing you could ever hope to eat. LaOn, a small-plates restaurant from Jenni Park, who also owns Park's Barbecue and the pork restaurant Don Dae Gam, is probably the only modern restaurant in Koreatown. It is styled as a kind of Korean tapas bar, more Western than a traditional anju bar, but the best dishes tend to be Park's reimagining of the Joseon royal classics: yook hwe, grilled abalone, japchae and the egg-battered fish and vegetables called jeon. LaOn may have the crispest jeon in town. But Park's gujeolpan, with the number of ingredients brought down by two from the traditional nine and called a "seven wrap," may be the cleverest revamp of them all -- shreds of cucumber, carrot, stewed beef, simmered mushrooms and egg white and yolk served with lightly pickled daikon slices in place of the crepes, a gujeolpan that is fresh and crisp instead of stolid. 1145 S. Western Ave.; (213) 373-0700.
Yook hwe may be the simplest dish in the Korean repertoire, a basic salad of slightly frozen raw beef, slivered Korean pear and a little sesame oil. When done correctly, the mild crunch of the pear and the semi-frozen beef tend to rhyme. A lot of Korean cooking can be goosed with a shot of doenjang or raw garlic, but the success of yook hwe depends absolutely on the quality of its raw materials, more reliably found in a fancy restaurant than in a joint. MaDang 621 is the grandest restaurant Koreatown has ever known, a fortress of marble and glass anchoring a complex built into the footprint of the old Woo Lae Oak -- you can imagine it as the Korean equivalent of the Hollywood & Highland Center but based on a Korean costume epic instead of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. Inside, MaDang 621 soars like New York's Four Seasons -- severely modernist, barely softened with traditional Korean touches -- and it is one of the few dining rooms left in Los Angeles where the male customers tend to wear ties. So, the yook hwe: meat well marbled and hand-cut, pear properly crunchy, oil judiciously applied. 621 S. Western Ave.; (213) 384-2244.
Japchae is the stir-fried cellophane noodle dish that is as unavoidable in Korean meals as potato salad is at an Alabama picnic. Banchan a la Carte is more or less a gourmet takeout shop where you can pick up superior, home-fermented versions of sauces like ssamjang and gochujang; fresh kimchi; plastic containers of banchan for your own table (I especially like the marinated burdock); and prettily arranged party platters. There are also a few tables where you can eat in, mostly fusion-y dishes like pasta with cod roe and Korean jambalaya but also one of the few local japchaes, tossed with grilled vegetables and served for some reason over rice, which you might think of eating on its own. Slippery, warm and somehow both filling and light, the japchae is an ideal lunch. 141 N. Western Ave.; (323) 465-2400.
One good thing about Koreatown restaurants circa 2012? Bibimbap isn't awful any more. I mean, sometimes the dish, with rice mixed at the table with shredded vegetables, fiery-sweet gochujang and perhaps a fried egg, is imbalanced, but it's because the salted herbs are too chewy or the meat is too plentiful, not because the cook is cleaning out yesterday's salad bar onto your lunch. It has become a safe dish almost everywhere, and at home-style restaurants like Mapo and Seongbukdong, it verges on superb. But as always, at Jeon Ju, named after the spiritual home of the dish in South Korea, bibimbap is almost transcendent, the flavors of each mountain vegetable distinct yet melding into the whole, the snap of the chile paste as nuanced as good bourbon, and the different intensities of crunch becoming almost contrapuntal under the teeth. The variation called dol sot bibimbap is really the way to go, served in a volcanically hot stone pot that creates a crisp, slightly scorched crust and a subtly pervasive smokiness. Jeon Ju's bibimbap may be one of the few recorded instances where the intensely herbal vegan version is better than the one-dimensional version with barbecued meat. 2716 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 386-5678.
Chicken noodle soup
To understand Korean noodles without tasting gook soo is like trying to grok Italian noodles without ever having eaten spaghetti. Everything else is just commentary. And the gook soo you need to taste is at Olympic Noodle, where the thick, knife-cut pasta is fragile yet has tensile strength, bland yet wheaty, and ordinarily served in a pungent broth made from dried anchovies but possibly at its best in the context of a dense, milky chicken broth -- sliced noodle soup with chicken, or dak kal gook soo -- whose preparation flouts every rule of stock-making you ever learned from Jacques Pepin. The gook soo both will and will not remind you of Northern Chinese knife-cut noodles you may have had at San Gabriel places like Omar's. It will and will not remind you of Art's Deli. It is chicken noodle soup. It is served in bowls as large as utility sinks. It contains multitudes. Olympic Noodle also happens to have the only steamed mandoo, dumplings, you really need to know about, and its kimchi is fetishized by Koreatown OGs. 4008 W. Olympic Blvd.; (323) 931-0007.
Kong gook soo
Is there an unusual number of cold noodles in Koreatown? Very well, there's an unusual number of cold noodles. You need some way of cooling down in the summer when your grandmother believes that, if you fall asleep with the fan on, you die. Also, cold noodles are delicious. We have talked about gook soo. Now we are talking about Ma Dang Gook Soo's kong gook soo, the same knife-cut noodles bathed in fresh soy milk, sprinkled with cucumber slivers and scented with a few drops of sesame oil. Bring on August. We're ready. 869 S. Western Ave.; (213) 487-6008.