There are several ways to learn something about an unfamiliar cuisine, and some of them are easier than others. The best way, of course, is to be walked through by a knowledgeable friend. Barring that, you could buy a decent cookbook--if there is a decent cookbook; with most non-European cuisines it's pretty much catch as catch can--and work your way through the recipes, hoping that the author really understands the principles behind dinuguan at puto .
Or you could go to a restaurant and try to choose a representative meal or two, hoping that you don't wind up with six consecutive dishes based on the same brown sauce (as I invariably used to do at certain Shanghai-style restaurants) or a heap of something that looks like carefully poached hot-water bottles. It can take a lot of practice to steer between the Scylla of sweet 'n' sour pork and the Charybdis of sea cucumber with goose foot.
Even in Los Angeles, home to the largest Korean community outside Korea, Korean cooking is hard to get to know. English-language Korean cookbooks are few and meager, providing only the two-score dishes a housewife might conceivably need to learn; there is no Korean Ken Hom or Korean "Yan Can Cook."
Korean restaurants are rare outside Koreatown. And inside Koreatown, even at places that specialize in seafood or tofu casserole, Western customers tend to be directed toward massive orders of barbecued short ribs, a popular dish that most people--even Koreans--admittedly find more delicious than a bowl of pickled corvina. A lot of Angelenos consider char-your-own barbecued ribs synonymous with the splendid, complex world of Korean food, the way most of Asia thinks Kentucky Fried Chicken is all there is to the cooking of the American South. And they're both wrong.
The Lotte Buffet is a large, clean cafeteria in one of those gleaming pan-ethnic malls that seem to have marched up Vermont from the 10 to the 101; its neighbors include a Japanese robata joint and a Pakistani deli, a Sizzler and a mosque. At noon and in the early evening, the restaurant is jammed with elderly Koreans and dark-suited businessmen looking for a quick bargain, and it hops with a family crowd on weekends.
If the best way to learn about a cuisine is to see, smell and taste a wide variety of foods, a spot in a slow-moving cafeteria line might be more instructive than a week's worth of cooking shows. And though the food is no better than average, the self-service Lotte Buffet might be a better place to learn about Korean cuisine than one of the grand restaurants--a cheap, all-you-can-eat opportunity to sample everything Korean from soup to pine nuts. (If you're unsure how to serve yourself an item on the buffet, somebody impatient behind you will show you how it's done.) Behind the counter, dumplings are fried, eggs are cooked, short ribs are grilled in plain sight; fresh every few minutes. Stick to cold stuff the first time around. The first thing you come to on the buffet, after an enormous electric hamper of rice, is gray clumps of noodles on a wire rack: cold, chewy things looking like brains and ready to be plopped into a bowl with a spoonful of hot mustard, a garnish of turnip kimchi and a ladleful of tart, chilled broth. Don't pass them by: The noodles are among the best things in the restaurant, wonderful slurping on a hot day.
The range of kimchis , cold Korean pickles usually eaten with rice, might include tiny, whole fried fish, chile-red cubes of white radish marinated with Korean watercress, bean sprouts in sesame oil and the traditional sour mound of fermented cabbage. You'll also find mayonnaise-spiked macaroni salad as only your junior high school cafeteria could make it.
That weird-looking heap of "bones" on the top tier is probably raw chile crab, one of the glories of Korean cuisine, sweet flesh jellied and clear-tasting through the fragrant hot spice. The crab has been dismembered so that you can eat it easily--just pick up a fragment with your chopsticks and suck out the meat. There's a bin of small chilled, boiled octopi, ready to daub with a bit of sweet chile paste, and what seem like hard-rubber slices of Korean head cheese, deriving their only taste from a strong dip made with chile, garlic and fermented fish. There are good cold glass noodles, dotted with shredded vegetables and bits of cooked beef.
Sometimes the cold dishes are the best part of a Korean meal, and a meal at Lotte is no exception. Chile tripe stew is a little rubbery, and kimchi stew tastes oddly like old-fashioned Southern collard greens spiked with chile vinegar. Flat fried dumplings stuffed with liver are limp and greasy, as are flavorless slices of Korean blood sausage. Honey-fried chicken "drummettes," while decent by the Colonel's standards, are weirdly sweet.
Crisp egg pancakes, both plain and enrobing slices of zucchini, are fine, at least, and the hot beef soup is rich and comforting. And the inevitable barbecued shortribs are kind of tasty, especially when you wrap the garlicky things into a crisp leaf of romaine, dab them with chile and eat them with your hands.
Desserts are the usual sort of American things served at Asian restaurants, cut fruit, wedges of watermelon, canned cling peaches and jiggly cubes of red Jell-O . . . all you can eat!
Lotte Buffet, 401 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 487-6960. Open Monday-Satuday for lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., and for dinner, 5:30-9:30 p.m. No alcohol. Cash only. Lot parking. Lunch: $7.95. Dinner: $9.95.
Recommended dishes: cold noodle soup; raw chile crab; chilled octopus with chile paste; various kimchis with rice.
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