Jonathan Gold's 60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know
|Tonkatsu or donkasu? This is the latter, a Korean pork dish at Wako Donkasu. The former is similar, but Japanese.|
Tonkatsu, fried pork, is distinctly a Japanese dish, or at least Portuguese as filtered by Japan. What Wako Donkasu serves is definitely crunchy Japanese tonkatsu but with an almost inexplicable Korean edge. The restaurant may have borrowed the name of the most famous tonkatsu chain in Tokyo, and its food may be fitted into compartmentalized wooden boxes, but the place's vibe, the brusque cheerfulness and big portions are pretty much what you'd find at a Japanese restaurant in Seoul -- the pork cutlet is the size and shape of a deep-fried Zagat guide. The best moment here? Grinding toasted sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle as soon as you are seated, ostensibly to flavor the sweet donkasu sauce but also as a first course that is merely a perfume, a promise of the food to come. 2904 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 387-9256.
"If you haven't had Soban's ganjang gaejang," a Yelp princess told me not long ago, "you really have no business talking about Koreatown.'' Soban is one of the new breed of chef-owned dinner houses, slightly old-fashioned and not inexpensive, which choose to do a few dishes really well rather than supporting a giant menu. If you have eaten extensively in Koreatown, you have undoubtedly run into ganjang gaejang, raw marinated crab, as a giveaway in an assortment of banchan -- there's a swell one at Don Dae Gam. At Soban, a homely place best known for its spicy simmered short ribs and its squid salad, ganjang gaejang, at the princely price of $29.95, is a major commitment. Two neatly bisected blue crabs on a platter are transformed by what seems to be a clean, soy-tinged distillation of the animal's own juices, mellow yet crabbier than the crab itself. When you suck at a leg, the flesh pulls cleanly out from the shell, firm but not cooked, briny and sweet, and nearly glazed with big clumps of roe. You can eat well here even if raw crab doesn't happen to be your thing. The presentation of banchan is remarkable -- there are usually at least 15 small dishes -- and the spicy galbi jjim, the ubiquitous braised short-rib preparation, is just stunning, as weightless and as caramelized as an effort by a Michelin-starred chef. 4001 W. Olympic Blvd.; (323) 936-9106.
Is eundagu jorim the default Tuesday-night dinner in Seoul? Because the spicy, black-cod casserole is pretty much everywhere around here, even in restaurants specializing in barbecue or bibimbap, and even though the price in the local markets, last time I checked, was more than $20 a pound. Jun Won is another one of the old-fashioned, home-style restaurants -- the owner also runs what is considered to be the best banchan deli in town -- and although the specialties are ostensibly pollack casserole and vivid-red steamed belt fish, I have never been able to get past the simmered black cod ("steamed black cod" on the menu): a little spicy and meltingly sweet, riding a baseball-size hunk of radish that has been braised to utter, utter submission. 3100 W. 8th St.; (213) 383-8855.
Galbi jjim, yes, galbi jjim. Everyone knows you go to Seongbukdong for galbi jjim. It's on every table nearly, set out in little pots -- steamed short ribs, barely touched with sweetness, which breathe the essence of good meat and time. At $25.99 or so, it is by far the most expensive thing on the menu, and you probably should get two, because it vanishes more quickly than pistachio nuts. The last time I was in, the braised mackerel may have been the single best bit of seafood I have ever tasted in Koreatown, cooked in a way that accentuated its fishiness instead of quieting it, turning the oily pungency of the flesh almost into a condiment, a self-generated garum. The transformation of the mackerel was the fishy equivalent of grapes turned into wine. Breathtaking. 3303 W. Eighth St.; (213) 738-8977.
Until I actually tasted the stuff, I half-believed that budae jjigae was an urban legend, a traditional Korean stew enriched with Spam and hot dogs and instant ramen cadged from American army bases, sometimes enriched with canned sausages and glops of American cheese. Budae jjigae, sometimes called military stew, or Johnson tang in honor of LBJ, is a culinary souvenir of the hard years after the Korean War. But the stew is a hit in Koreatown, as well as Seoul, a cheap staple of soju bars, where the hot, orange goo has legendary absorptive qualities. At Chunju Han-il Kwan, you can more or less believe it is delicious, enriched with feathery green chrysanthemum leaves, and fortified with chiles to a point where you almost can't taste the Spam. 3450 W. Sixth St.; (213) 480-1799.
Grilled pork neck
Don Dae Gam, owned by the Park's BBQ people, is less Seoul high-tech than post-Ikea chic; its menu is weighted toward combination barbecue dinners, meant to be shared by three or four, inexpensive enough to feed hungry college students. Beer, a pot of kimchi stew and various enhancements are included in the price -- one night there was a generous platter of what seemed like broiled tripas de leche, the top of the small intestine of an unweaned calf, the half-digested milk still inside. But it's mostly about the pig and the grill here: four kinds of pork belly, two kinds of pork ribs and a stray slab of beef brisket, which under the circumstances is probably meant as honorary pork. When you burn out on pork belly -- is it possible to burn out on pork belly? -- try the delicate, fat-ribboned slices of pork neck instead. 1145 S. Western Ave.; (323) 373-0700.
Anne Fishbein Savoring a bowl at Park's BBQ, a branch of the Seoul K-pop hangout.
Park Dae Gam, better known as Park's BBQ, is the ultramodern palace of high-end meats that changed the game in Koreatown, the restaurant that managed to put the fragrance of hardwood charcoal into the meat and not into your hair, established superprime Wagyu beef as its standard grade and introduced the pork known as Tokyo X, a lean, dense pig from a special hybrid breed whose bellies have the springy presence of fresh pasta. Park's, a branch of a Seoul restaurant known for its clientele of pop stars and movie directors, is the most expensive barbecue place in Koreatown by a not insignificant amount, but it is still almost impossible to get into on a balmy Saturday night. (Ironically, Park's success may have been indirectly responsible for the surge of supercheap, kind-of-mediocre Korean barbecue joints in the last couple of years -- with the top and middle established, the bottom was the only niche left to fill.) When you decide that you've moved beyond the maximal aesthetic of all-you-can-eat, you may want to celebrate here with an order of USDA Prime ggot sal, rib-eye steak, on the grill. If you're spending more money on less meat, ggot sal is the way to go. 955 S. Vermont Ave.; (213) 380-1717.
You've been to sushi bars; you know the drill. You murmur the word omakase, you settle back with a beaker of daiginjo, and you submit to the exquisite ministrations of the chef. Forget what you know about sashimi when you walk into a Koreatown live-seafood restaurant. Because while the raw materials are more or less the same, and there are judgmental men with sharp knives involved, the rules are not the same. In sushi bars, you experience a sequence of fish whose order and preparations are orchestrated by the chef. In Koreatown, at, say, Wassada, you experience one fish, usually a live halibut: lifted from a tank, dispatched and sliced into wisp-thin sashimi -- a lot of sashimi. Do you delicately dip one corner of a halibut filet into soy sauce? You could, although it's more likely that you'll smear the fish with Wassada's astonishingly good bean paste, ssam jang, then wrap it in a gaenip leaf with a clove of raw garlic. And while you may be exploring the nuances of one fish rather than the contours of many, the side dishes never stop coming: sliced abalone in its shell, an entire box of sea urchin, oysters, abalone porridge, spicy fish soup, broiled fish head, fish-roe salad, slabs of monkfish liver -- basically an entire Jacques Cousteau special laid out on
a big table, randy sea squirts and all. 377 N. Western Ave.; (323) 464-3006.
Feminist theory often refers to what has been called the male gaze. And if the male gaze were to be focused on a foodstuff instead of Megan Fox, it might well be buldak, fire chicken, the consumption of which is at least as much a masculine ritual as an Adam Sandler movie or mixed martial arts. If a dinner of buldak doesn't put you on the floor, sweating profusely and gasping for breath, then it hasn't been doing its job. The preparation is simple enough: It is marinated chicken, sautéed in a spicy, garlicky sauce. The machismo lies in the level of heat, which can be raised to paralyzing levels. The last time I was in Korean Chicken Place, the owner initially refused to serve me buldak; after he agreed, employees came by the table every couple of minutes to make sure that the occasional yowls were not indications of actual physical distress, though I often looked as if I had been tear-gassed by an overenthusiastic officer of the law. After dinner, on my way out of the restaurant patio, the waitress touched my arm and admitted that the cook had taken the heat level up to three. The next time I visited, she promised, they would crank it up to four. 618 S. Serrano Ave.; (213) 388-6990.