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So you think you know kimchi?

L.A. Omogari delights connoisseurs with dishes featuring a newly trendy, long-aged variety.

February 07, 2007|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

LOS ANGELES is undeniably the kimchi capital of America. Each day in Koreatown alone, hundreds of restaurants turn out thousands of gallons of the pungent pickled vegetables while tons of kimchi produced by local factories and artisanal shops line the block-long coolers of Korean supermarkets. Temperature-controlled storage units designed for finicky connoisseurs are to homemade kimchi what wine closets are to rare vintages.

Despite this odiferous plentitude, there are still some kimchi varieties Angelenos have yet to explore, which is why L.A. Omogari, a brightly lighted cafe on Western Avenue, insists on importing a regional kimchi specialty from the homeland. The restaurant is following the lead of the trend-loving Korean food scene that has recently embraced this particular style.

"This is a special long-aged variety typical of Jeolla province," one Korean food lover explained. The flavor, right up there with the luscious intensity of gooey aged cheeses, has an incredible complexity from its long fermentation and the seafood used to flavor it.

The kitchen at L.A. Omogari reserves the specialty to use as an ingredient in stews, soups, and even anju (hors d'oeuvres), while the kimchi put out on the tables along with other accompaniments is the non-aged domestic variety.

The cheery, unpretentious restaurant takes its name, Omogari, from the word for stone pot in the Jeolla-do dialect (elsewhere the pot is called a ddookbaegi). Every Korean seems to know that Jeolla province is famous not only for its kimchi but as the "home of many delicacies." Old wives' tales insist a man will eat well if he marries a woman from Jeolla. The proud province displays its culinary wealth at its many local food festivals including, natch, a kimchi festival at which attendees learn kimchi-making arts at hands-on classes.

Two not-to-be-missed dishes at L.A. Omogari are the kimchi pancake and the kimchi fried rice on a sizzling skillet (absent from the English menu but illustrated on the wall). The pearly rice grains, dotted with tiny cubes of ham or seafood and wisps of greenery, aren't as spicy as you might expect from the fire-engine red color of the dish. Likewise the pancake, crispy edged with a melting interior full of multidimensional flavors, is a challenge to stop eating after the first bite.

Omogari's food isn't strictly limited to kimchi-doused provincial specialties. The menu includes dishes served everywhere in South Korea such as whole stuffed game hen soup, grilled beef ribs and buchu (Asian chive) pancake.

To balance the heat of our kimchi fried rice and pancake my lunch group also chose galbi jjim, braised beef short ribs (called steamed beef short rib on the menu). The robust stew with its fall-off-the-bone meat is dotted with chestnuts, pine nuts and Chinese dates, and gets a gentle undercurrent of heat from a couple of tiny dried peppers. Steamed egg in hot pot, a blend of soup stock and egg steamed to a custardy firmness, also makes a swell foil for fiery dishes.

At dinner on another visit, we turned our attention to the menu's first page, which lists several kimchi-laced soupy stews served in omogari. The pork version we chose (and I suspect all the others) is definitely not for the delicate of palate. It has to be close to the top of the Scoville chile pepper heat rating scale. Or you can opt for a combo meal, a smaller serving of soupy, meatless kimchi stew along with an entree such as grilled fish or beef.

Naengmyun, cold noodle dishes, were once strictly seasonal but are now eaten year-round. Omogari offers several varieties, but the one that truly sails is the extravagant buckwheat noodle platter for two. The springy strands, finer than angel hair, come swirled over a baby lettuce salad, heaped with chewy strips of skate wing and crunchy Asian pear then sluiced with peppery-sweet gochujang sauce. Arranged around the noodle mound are cold beef slices, assorted vegetables and quarters of perfectly hard-cooked egg. The sweet hotness of the sauce pulls the varied flavors together in a triumph of sensory overload.

Don't worry that you might miss out on something great when you turn to the portion of the menu written in Hangul (Korean alphabet). It primarily lists combination meals composed of items from the first two pages.

And don't worry that you won't find the place, given that its sign is mostly written in Hangul. The first two letters -- L.A. -- are in English and its location across Western Avenue from Koreatown Plaza shopping center is highly visible.

This is one of those places where food is the focus. Backlit colored pictures of featured dishes are just about the large room's only decor. But one wall, painted Sunkist orange, is filled with autographs and testimonials from well-known entertainment personalities including Hong Kong film star Jackie Chan. Many luminaries, evidently, have already fallen for the Jeolla-do flavors that L.A. Omogari is introducing to the rest of us.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

L.A. Omogari

Location: 901 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 734-4900.

Price: Sides and snacks, $4 to $7; entrees to share, $8 to $19; combination dinners, $11 to $24.

Best dishes: Kimchi fried rice, kimchi or buchu pancake, buckwheat noodle platter, combo meal of steamed beef short rib (galbi jjim) with omogari.

Details: Open 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Lot and street parking. Beer, soju and soft drinks. Visa, Mastercard.

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