If you think that all Korean food is the same, you haven't been to Koreatown lately. While restaurant menus once offered a few standard dishes, the heated competition among the countless barbecues has forced restaurateurs to look beyond their grills. Suddenly the smoke is clearing, and those hungry for more than kalbi have discovered that they can find everything they want--from pub food to health food.
In Seoul, there is a lively area called Myong-dong, which is famous for its tiny one-man, one-specialty food places. These offer casual fare not generally served in larger establishments--simple favorites like hand-cut noodles or crispy mung bean pancakes or kyejang , a kind of Korean ceviche of raw crab cured in spicy chili marinade. Now one part of Los Angeles' Koreatown is starting to look like a mini Myong-dong.
And it is doing a thriving business catering to the Korean community. But you'd have to read \o7 Hangul\f7 (Korean script) to understand the menus. While many do have at least partial English menus, I'm haunted by the thought that something good has been left untranslated.
If you have an adventurous palate and want to explore these unusual Korean specialties, the following restaurants are a good place to begin.
She Gol Jib (pronounced sigolchip) means "country house," and the restaurant's rustic interior reminds nostalgic Koreans of a fading bucolic past. Calligraphic rice paper covers the walls. Waitresses bustle by in old-fashioned country style dresses. And She Gol Jib's heavy hand-painted rice paper menu offers both earthy one-dish meals and an array of popular "snacks." This is Korean comfort food at its best.
Hoping to make some new discoveries, I asked my Korean guest to order. Our \o7 modumjon\f7 , a sort of Korean grazing plate, held mild little peppers stuffed with a meat-seafood mixture, dipped in an eggy batter and fried. Along with them came baby oysters, morsels of fish and slices of vegetables all similarly cooked. (\o7 Modumjon\f7 isn't on the English menu so just ask for it.) Our \o7 pindaettok\f7 , crisp, savory pancakes made from ground mung beans, had decidedly more appeal than their description allows. But it was the array of \o7 kimchis\f7 --some hot, some salty--punctuating these plainer foods that illustrated the contrasts that give Korean meals their allure.
Around us, solo lunchtime customers were eating from traditional \o7 ttukpaegi\f7 --deep, wide, flame-proof pottery bowls that keep food hot throughout the meal, a boon during severe Korean winters. On my next visit I'll eat from one, and order the She Gol Jib special "pork bowl soup."
\o7 She Gol Jib, 3100 West 8th St., No. 101, Los Angeles, (213) 383-8855. Hours: 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
"High mountains dividing the provinces kept regional foods different before the Korean war. Our chilled noodles are a regional specialty of the Hamhung area," Daniel Oh, Ham Hung's proprietor, explained. "We're the only restaurant in the States to serve this style \o7 naengmyon\f7 ." Many other restaurants, however, make the buckwheat and potato starch noodles.
The restaurant is large and elegant, not the proverbial tiny noodle shop. First a waitress brought cups of rich-tasting beef broth and tea. The noodles we ordered had a spicy sauce but other versions are mild. Our waitress cut the silky, yards-long noodles with scissors. "These aren't really \o7 that \f7 spicy," my friend said, swishing her noodles around in the red sauce. They still have plenty of kick, though.
Although Ham Hung's long menu includes familiar barbecue and a number of noodleless Hamhung-regional specialties, at lunchtime the large stainless steel noodle bowls show up on every table.
On the way to the kitchen, Oh showed us huge bags of noodle base, ". . . made from six different kinds of starch, including potato and yam." He imports cases of fresh garlic from Taiwan. "Chinese garlic tastes different," he notes. We watched noodles exit from a huge noodle-making machine into a vat of almost-boiling water. The chef, a 25-year veteran of Korean noodle kitchens, swished them around with a pole, fished them out with a net, then plunged them into a large sink of ice and water. "The noodles must be served three minutes after they're made; we make each serving to order."
When you lunch at Ham Hung, you know your noodles are fresh.
\o7 Ham Hung restaurant, 809 S\f7 .\o7 Ardmore Ave. (Corner 8th and Ardmore), (213) 381-1865 or 381-1520. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Go around to the back of Hang Goo Restaurant and enter through the parking lot like everyone else. Don't let the locked heavy wooden front doors or the staff's reserved puzzlement (they thought we were in the wrong restaurant) deter you from eating some of the city's best young crab soup. As soon as you begin to empty your bowl everyone will be smiling. They'll bring you more tea and ask "how's everything?"