On what should have been the bleakest night of the year for eating out--the Monday night after New Year's weekend--Kang Nam was jammed. The booths just inside the door were filled. The rooms beyond were crowded. Some hardy souls even ate in the patio, which is a nice, garden-like space, perfect for a hot night. But not for this very cold night.
Arriving early enough to snag a table inside, my companions and I warmed up with cups of barley tea. Then we ordered a series of Korean casseroles. The first, tofu chi gae, was little cubes of tofu, bits of beef and zucchini slices floating in an alarmingly red chile broth (it turned out to be mild).
Next came daen jang chi gae, more tofu chunks in a heavy black stone pot so hot we didn't dare touch it. The flavor was intense, not with chiles but with dark, faintly sweet miso. Flavor was provided by beef chunks and broth and nappa cabbage.
Kangnam jungor is an assortment of meat, seafood and vegetables that diners usually cook at the table in a pot with a central chimney. Here it arrived already cooked, with fragrant chrysanthemum leaves fanned over the top and a raft of white enoki mushrooms floating beside them. Spooning through the pot, we turned up fish, clams, shrimp, carrot slices, daikon, nappa cabbage, jalapeno chiles, wood ear mushrooms, dainty pink and white slices of fish cake, chewy oval rice cakes and wedges of the whitest imaginable tofu.
The taste was mild and briny. But we could eat only a small portion because more food was coming, and we were also snacking from the little dishes of kimchi, marinated bean sprouts and other Korean side dishes.
By now we felt like tackling a cold dish, bibim naeng myun, a refreshing dish of cold buckwheat noodles in a red chile sauce that was more sweet than hot and gave off the pleasant aroma of sesame oil. The slim noodles mingled with long strips of cucumber and daikon, thin slices of beef brisket, green onions, hard-boiled egg and chunks of crisp, juicy Asian pear. The pear added a tantalizing sweetness, a fruity note unexpected in a spicy noodle dish.
We left this bowl clean and moved on to our after-dinner drink, a cool sweet drink (shik-he) made from glutinous rice. On top floated a single pine nut. There must be a tradition to this, because every time I have this rice drink at Kang Nam, it always contains just one nut.
One evening I dropped by alone. Looking for something different from the usual barbecued meats, I ordered spicy sauteed monkfish (a-gu jim). This was a conglomeration of monkfish and other seafood in a chile-red mass of bean sprouts and minari greens. What I thought was a chunk of fish turned out to be monkfish liver. I dislike liver, but what a shock--it was the best part of the dish. Smooth and tasting of the sea, it was an oceanic equivalent of foie gras.
Kang Nam has a full assortment of Korean barbecue dishes and table grills. When the weather warms up, the patio will be ideal for grilling. It's nicely landscaped, with impatiens, abutilon, potted palms and other plants, a magnolia tree in the center. High brick walls screen out the traffic noise from Olympic Boulevard just outside.
The only barbecue I have had at Kang Nam is pork, which came on a base of grilled onions that absorbed the meat juices. My friends and I ordered that for a Sunday brunch, where we also ate a big, rustic pancake stuffed with green onions, clams and tiny shrimp, a sort of Korean frittata accompanied by a soy dipping sauce with sesame seeds. The side dishes that time included beef brisket boiled in seasoned soy sauce with fresh green shishito chiles. It was notable, but I haven't seen it again.
Like most Korean restaurants in Los Angeles, Kang Nam has a sushi bar and a Japanese menu that includes sashimi, rice dishes, a lunch box and a few other dishes. The Korean menu is long, with interesting possibilities such as spicy monkfish pepper pot soup, cold noodles with slices of spicy raw fish and cold handmade buckwheat noodles combined with short ribs in cold broth.
Kang Nam has been in business for 17 years. Chef-owner Sang Hun Lee once cooked in a Japanese restaurant in Seoul, and so cooks the Japanese food as well as the Korean dishes.
Kang Nam Korean & Japanese Restaurant, 4103 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 937-1070. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Major credit cards. Full bar. Lot and street parking. Dinner for two, $16 to $40.
What to Get: tofu chi gae, bibim naeng myun, kangnam jungor, barbecued meats.