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It's a spicy, splendid hot pot adventure

Restaurants / THE FIND

It's all about the crab at On Dal 2, where a parade of Korean courses comes with a flourish of service.

September 26, 2007|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

MESSY, spicy, crab and seafood hot pots are, you could say, hot right now on L.A.'s Korean-dining scene. A restaurant called On Dal 2, one of the brightest stars among the places dedicated to this specialty, sits off the Koreatown radar on a restaurant-scarce stretch of Washington Boulevard near La Brea Avenue.

Opened nine months ago, it's a near clone of a restaurant in South Korea owned by the family of On Dal 2's proprietor, Kihoa Kim, whose wife, Hyo-Sook, does the cooking here.

Many crab shack devotees know the drill at such beloved Maryland spots as Obrycki's or the Cracked Claw, where buckets of crustaceans are brought forth with wooden mallets for shell cracking. A meal at On Dal 2, though similarly ritualistic, is a tad more genteel, fabulously tasty and insanely service-intensive.

First a waiter places a steaming pot of broth on the table's embedded burner. "This crab cake is the family's recipe," he announces, spooning a soft, luscious substance, somewhat reminiscent of a dumpling filling, from the dish-shaped crab shell in which it cooked. Crunchy pinpoints of caviar-like crab roe shoot bursts of flavor into each bite.

As the waiter serves, we tie on the heavy cotton bibs that match the restaurant's chair coverings, one of many carefully attended-to details here. You also have Hyo-Sook Kim's beautifully-made panchan to nibble on: These side dishes may include a pie-size grilled vegetable pancake, chile-marinated pickles, a whole grilled pike, a wedge of omelet and gaejang -- a ceviche-like baby crab cured in red-hot bean paste.

The bubbling broth gets its delicate ocean perfume from sea-squirts, leathery barnacle-like creatures filled with briny juices; some diners like to suck out the juice of these otherwise inedible creatures.

Next, wielding a hefty pair of kitchen shears, our waiter extracts one of the crabs from the cooking pot and begins readying it for easy eating. With a flourish, he quarters it, snips off the leg ends and cuts open the remaining shell for easier extracting.

Around the room, people in groups of six, eight and more are leaning over strategically placed bowls positioned to catch juices. Mini mountains of rumpled paper napkins amass on the tables as diners ferret out every bit of meat using reed-slender crab spoons. Cut shells or not, mining for the sweet, snowy meat is no dainty chore. As one diner would later comment, "Wonderful, but not exactly a great first-date meal."

On Dal's modest size allows its attentive staff to keep an eye on what's happening at the tables. When it looks like you're winding down, the dumpling lady arrives with a handful of dough which she kneads and stretches as though making pizza. She slips dime-size nuggets into the scalding broth, and they emerge as flat, chewy, wheaty-tasting disks reminiscent of orecchiette pasta or the handmade Hungarian pinched dumplings, csipetke.

Next comes the stir-fried rice course. Rich, spicy and filling, it's a satisfying ending. To the bowl of rice the waiter adds a bit of greenery, usually ssukkat (edible chrysanthemum leaves), plus a little kimchi, a sprinkling of roasted soybean powder and the remaining broth for seasoning. Lightly enriched with roasted sesame oil as it fries, the rice, to many, is the best part of the meal.

On Dal's hot pots come in multiple heat levels, from lip-numbing to nonspiced (although we don't recommend the latter). Each variety -- crab, mixed seafood or monkfish -- may be had either as a soupy hot pot or a sautéed dish with broth served on the side.

Three sizes are designed for groups: The larger the merrier and the better the price, with the extra-large ($65) working out to about $8 per person for eight or about $11 per person for six. The small ($45) serves three. An a la carte order of haemul pajun, a seafood pancake, or the soy sauce-cured raw crab called gaejang, makes a satisfying accompaniment in addition to the panchan that come with the hot pots.

On Dal 2 serves hot pots at lunch, although in Korea, consuming them is generally a leisurely nighttime pursuit, accompanied by plenty of soju or beer. But the lunch special of mixed seafood stew is quite an acceptable facsimile of the shared hot pots.

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food@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

On Dal 2

Location: 4566 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 933-3228

Price: Spicy crab soup, crab with spicy sauce, spicy mixed seafood soup casserole: small, $45; medium, $53; large, $65. All the above, made with monkfish: $28, $35 and $45. Seafood pancake, $14. Crab preserved in soy sauce, $16. Lunch specials, $7 to $14.

Best dishes: Spicy crab soup, spicy seafood casserole (a soup), seafood pancake.

Details: Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Rear lot and street parking. Beer, wine, soju and soft drinks. Visa, MasterCard.

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Online photo gallery

See more photos of dinner at On Dal 2 at latimes.com/food.

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