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Restaurants | COUNTERINTELLIGENCE: KOREA

From the deep, an unexpected delight

Octopus is the specialty at My Secret Recipe, where fiery sauces and exotic vegetables give the dishes dimension.

November 30, 2005|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

THE Korean passion for octopus runs so deep that there is a whole street of restaurants specializing in dishes prepared with them in the Mu Gyo Dong nightlife area of Seoul.

Here in Los Angeles, the love affair with tentacled cephalopods is in its infancy, but local Korean-octopus aficionados can find their heart's desire at new specialty restaurants springing up in and around Koreatown. For culinary adventurers, they offer some delightful never-tried-this-before choices, but the food is so appealing that you don't have to be hunting for novelty to enjoy the meal.

The restaurant My Secret Recipe on 3rd Street and its much smaller newly opened branch, Nakzi Village, in Koreatown Plaza, are exceedingly popular examples of octopus-centric establishments. Both offer tender "baby" octopuses prepared dozens of ways: crispy, savory minced octopus pancake appetizers, grand paella-like dishes cooked at the table, bouillabaisse-style soups crammed with assorted seafood as well as grilled, with noodles and in other preparations.

The menus focus on the two small, not technically baby, species of cephalopods, nakzi (pronounced NAK gee) and its more diminutive shorter-legged relative chukumi (choo koo mee). Although it's scarce in retail outlets here, the fresh nakzi flown in from Korea that occasionally shows up in some L.A. Korean supermarkets for about $20 per pound is snapped up rapidly.

Both nakzi and chukumi, far more tender than their larger rubbery relatives, have a delicate taste that accommodates almost any flavoring but is an exceptional foil for spicy seasonings.

At My Secret Recipe, laminated Technicolor-bright menus -- written entirely in the Korean script, Hangul, are already laid out on tables when you arrive. But handwritten, photocopied sheets listing every dish in English -- although sometimes not particularly appetizingly -- are available for the asking.

We found the servers ready to answer questions and eager to make suggestions. "You might want a mild version of that," our waitress suggested when we ordered the house specialty: boiled octopus pot.

That name is a bit deceiving. The dish, which must be ordered for two or more, is cooked in a huge shallow pan fitted into a gas-fired burner sunk into your dining table, but there's no boiling to speak of. In the pan are cut-up pieces of nakzi, a heap of clear, springy noodles and an assortment of colorful vegetables, including soy bean sprouts and delicate, edible chrysanthemum leaves called sukkat.

Somewhere under all this is a puddle of spicy-hot chile sauce that expands and coats everything as it cooks. As a first course you eat the garlicky, chile-infused tender octopus and vegetables, leaving some behind. Then the server comes around with a bowl of rice topped with chopped Korean-style watercress and marinated turnip. She mixes it into the pot -- et voila! -- a second spicy paella-like course accented with a nip of slightly bitter green.

An excellent contrast to the spicy pot, the pancake called pa jun bears no relation whatsoever to an American breakfast food. Here, it's a dinner plate-size disk, crisp outside and slightly quiche-like within, flecked with tiny pieces of octopus and vegetables and cut into squares. A soy sauce-based dipping sauce flavored with nutty aromatic sesame oil comes alongside.

For larger parties, a dish called spicy noodle with 11 vegetables is an ideal choice. Misnamed, this visually stunning concoction barely hints of spice. It comes to the table on a round platter, the center heaped with sauced buckwheat noodles surrounded by finely cut vegetables and slivered omelet; you toss the whole thing like a salad.

Octopus hot pot rice is served in an intensely hot stone casserole. This saute of octopus and vegetables over rice is sauced with kojujang, a chile sauce made with sweet rice powder that caramelizes so that a crunchy, spicy, slightly sweet crust forms at the bottom of the dish. Everyone loves to pull out these crispy rice chunks and eat them like popcorn.

Another cooked-at-the-table extravaganza, boiled octopus soup, is like a spicy bouillabaisse with blue crab, shrimp, clams, vegetables, udon noodles and, of course, octopus, in a blazingly spicy broth. Also included are thumbnail-size, prehistoric-looking sea squirts -- possibly just to add flavor; they're too leathery to actually eat.

Grilled octopus may be ordered for one person, but its incendiary sauce is not for the faint of palate. On the other hand, baby octopus soup contains no pepper at all. This is the comfort food of Korean halmoni (grandmothers).

In its clear, light broth is a whole small octopus along with dumpling-like sujaebi, small, hand torn swatches of noodle dough that become slightly chewy as they cook. A spicier version of the soup incorporates kimchi.

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