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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

A Bowl of White

March 26, 1992|JONATHAN GOLD

When you walk into Shin Chon, a nondescript mini-mall restaurant near the northeastern edge of Koreatown, you know what you're going to eat, the waitress knows what you're going to eat, and all the other customers know it too. Shin Chon is a restaurant devoted to the cult of Korean beef soup, sol-long-tang, to the extent that there is no menu, just a few signs on the wall, and practically no other item served. There is also no language barrier: you don't order, you nod. There's even a neon depiction of the sol-long-tang in the front window. The beef soup is pretty good.

Sometimes you'll see men in the parking lot, staggering under the weight of a dozen or so to-go orders, or entire Korean Airlines flight crews slurping soup still in uniform. It's one of the few places you'll see both families and couples on date-night, gaggles of teen-agers and solo ancient men who thoughtfully contemplate the soup by themselves. Shin Chon is an extremely democratic institution, as thoroughly Korean as Nate N' Al's is Jewish . . . and maybe twice as haimisch . Open from dawn until midnight every day, inexpensive as can be, Shin Chon is the sort of community institution that you wish was in your community.

Almost as soon as you sit down, you are brought two dishes of fresh kimchi --one of pungent cabbage, one of crunchy radish, both intensely garlicky, also fiery hot. Then come small metal bowlsful of lukewarm barley tea, then little canisters of hot rice, then beer if you've ordered it, maybe a nice OB Dry. Before you've had time to nibble more than a leaf or two of the cabbage, out comes the soup, steaming hot in a straight-sided pottery bowl, smelling like the soul of beef.

Good sol-long-tang is milky-white, the result of long, patient cooking and the essence of many bones. In its ideal form it is as healthy and digestible as chicken soup, protein-rich, pretty much skimmed of all its fat, just the thing for a rainy spring afternoon, or as ballast for a night of serious drinking; for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Sol-long-tang seems to be almost as common in Koreatown as ramen is in Little Tokyo or pho is in Little Saigon--the universal snack, quick lunch or light evening meal. You can be in and out of any of the many Koreatown sol-long-tang joints in less than 30 minutes; you can recognize the sol-long-tang joints by the ubiquitous neon bowl of soup. And at least one Koreatown place will even deliver the sol-long-tang to your door.

Shin Chon's sol-long-tang is very milky, opaque enough to conceal its load of thin noodles and long-simmered slices of brisket, concentrated in beef flavor, practically an incandescent, glowing white. If the milky, wholesome groove seems appealing, you can dump in most of your bowl of rice, which turns the dish into a satisfying gruel.

The soup is unsalted--you season it to taste with a half-teaspoon or so of coarse salt from a container on the table. You also add loads of freshly chopped scallion greens, which soften quickly in the hot broth, and possibly a spoonful or two of Shin Chon's good chile paste, which tints the soup flamingo-pink in a flash.

The soup is also served in a bottomless bowl, more or less, because the waitresses will bring out more noodles, more kimchi , more broth and more barley tea if you want, then even package the "leftovers" to go.

Shin Chon

244 S. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 384-2663. Open daily, 6:30 a.m. to midnight. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $12.60.

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