Jonathan Gold's 60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know
|Employees Kyeong-Hwa and Jinwoo serving up crispy goodness at Kyochon.|
Korean fried chicken really is an evolutionary leap forward -- marinated in a cabinet full of spices, saturated with garlic, double-fried to a shattering, thin-skinned snap. It is not accidental that the streets of Koreatown sometimes seem to be paved with golden chicken skin. At Kyochon, the first of the Korean chicken joints, the chicken is cooked to order, so even a simple takeout box can take an eternity to prepare, and the only real appetizer is a dish of marinated daikon cubes. But then the chicken comes out, hacked into tiny, random pieces, all garlic and juice, heat and crunch. Satori that squawks like a bird. 3833 W. Sixth St.; (213) 739-9292.
Soondae, Korean blood sausage, has always had its place in Koreatown. It's good stuff -- thin hog casings stuffed with a restrained, mildly seasoned pudding of ox gore laced with transparent noodles. Soondae can be fried into a sort of crisp scrapple or served boiled in soup; steamed or cut into chunks and stir-fried with chile paste and vegetables. But Koreatown is going through its soondae moment -- there are a dozen specialists now, and a hundred other kitchens with reputable versions. At Eighth Street Soondae, one of the oldest and most respected of L.A.'s soondae parlors, the blood sausage is treated less as a racy snack than as a necessity of civilized life, in a thoroughly bourgeois dining room where the street-level snack is consumed with aplomb and plenty of napkins. 2703 W. Eighth St.; (213) 487-0038.
Clay pot duck
Dha Rae Ok may be the most worn-looking barbecue place on Western: veneers rubbed to the wood beneath, cases of beer piled against the wall in a dining room. On one visit, the flat-screen TVs on the walls were showing a video demonstrating intestinal polyp-removal surgery, which may be the single most disturbing thing I have ever seen in a restaurant. The galbi may be great; I've never tried it. But if you call four hours in advance and reserve, as discovered by Scoops Westside proprietor Matt Kang, there is also clay pot duck, prepared in a special oven. The duck appears at table, wrapped in a charred bandage of cloth. When the cloth is unrolled, the duck itself is pale. A chewy stuffing of purple rice cooked with beans and aromatics spills out of its interior; the powerful scent of Korean herbs inhabits every molecule of the flesh. It is soft enough to eat with a spoon. Spectacular. 1106 S. Western Ave.; (323) 733-2474.
Everybody knows the best sujebi, hand-torn flake noodles, in town. They're the ones that the waitress flings into your soup at the crab restaurant Ondal 2, right after you have plucked the last clump of back fin from the pot of boiling broth. And those sujebi do taste good, having soaked up the broth and all, although their texture sometimes is uncomfortably close to wadded white bread. Which brings us to the chewy, stretchy sujebi at MaPo Kkak Doo Gee, which are served in a plain yet delicious anchovy broth: just right. The restaurant, a high-quality neighborhood café named for its signature radish pickle, is also a great place to go for simmered black cod, spicy beef soup with leeks, and bibimbap. 3611 W. Sixth St.; (213) 736-6668.
After several years and many gallons of soju devoted to the subject, I have determined that my favorite Korean dish is almost certainly bossam, a combination plate of steamed pork belly, raw oysters, special kimchi, raw garlic and a salty condiment that looks as if it's made by fermenting Sea Monkeys, all of which you wrap into a sort of cabbage-leaf taco. If you should find yourself thirsty and in need of a pork belly, you may as well hit up the Koreatown bossam specialist Kobawoo, a polished destination restaurant with some of the best food in Koreatown. The house bossam is an elegant preparation that, like so many other Korean dishes, seems almost custom-designed to ease down a bottle of soju. One caveat: It will seem tempting to order the King Bossam platter, because, you know, you're the man. But don't. It won't get you any more pork belly, but it will get you piles of steamed stingray and boiled pig's foot that you probably don't want. 698 S. Vermont Ave., (213) 389-7300.
The gestation for this guide probably began 18 months ago when I ran across Jangchung-Dong Wong, a jokbal restaurant jammed into a corner of yet another minimall. If the Koreatown restaurant scene was developed enough to support not just a restaurant specializing in boiled pig's feet but a crowded restaurant specializing in boiled pig's feet, there was still a lot to be explored. And while we have had our share of nasty boiled pig's feet, the jokbal platter at Jangchung-Dong Wong is just fantastic, slices of soft, gently simmered shank arranged over a mound of disassembled trotter. If you swapped out the banchan and the salted-shrimp dipping sauce, you can imagine meeting this jokbal on the table of the London offal restaurant St. John. 425 S. Western Ave., (213) 386-3535.
Su jung Gwa
It's not just that Hwa Sun Ji is the most serene corner of Koreatown. It's that it often seems as if Hwa Sun Ji is the only serene corner of Koreatown, a teahouse with low, traditional Korean tables if you're into that, rustic straw mats on the walls and a long menu of teas and herbal tisanes, each accompanied by a list of their health-promoting attributes. If you get a cup of, say, the aged green tea boi cha, you can spend an entire afternoon there, the hot water replenished every few minutes without you having to ask. Su jung gwa is what is often translated as Korean Punch, a cold, sweet drink made with dried persimmon and lots of cinnamon. You've undoubtedly been served a little cup of it as a dessert after a Korean meal. But the complex, tart-sweet beauty of su jung gwa really comes out at Hwa Sun Ji, the slightly syrupy quality, the subtle resinous smack of the pine nuts floating in your tiny cup. The teahouse is also famous for its restrained version of pat-bingsu, the Korean shaved-ice dessert that somehow evolved into Pinkberry. 3960 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 382-5302.