A seafood pancake at Jun Won in Koreatown comes with a chile sauce. (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
"It's not that easy to find," warned the friend who agreed to meet at her favorite Korean place, Jun Won.
There's a faded sign, but unless you can read Hangul, Korean lettering, it won't help. Most customers park behind the restaurant and go in through the back door. Descend the tile-lined staircase and you'll see three doors; choose the first on your right.
Inside, a sparkling multicolored spread of dishes on every table gives the place the feel of a lavish tapas party. Fish is the star of the menu, but that's only one reason the 18-year-old restaurant's loyal clientele keeps returning. The seasonal array of eight or nine banchan (which may include a toss of sesame-dressed sukkat (young chrysanthemum greens), fresh parsley salad, tiny burger patties and seasoned eggplant) outshines those found at most Korean barbecues.
Owner Jung Ye Jun gets many of her leafy greens from friends who farm them in Bakersfield, says her son Jeff Jun, who now manages the restaurant. For years people would ask to buy extra banchan to go. Finally, at the urging of loyal customers, Jung Ye Jun opened a small retail boutique on Olympic Boulevard, where she makes and sells her banchan along with kimchi in the typical style of her home province, Chungcheongnam-do.
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In Korea, banchan change seasonally, regionally and from family to family, which is why the fresh, young daisy leaf banchan offered here in the springtime won't be available fresh in the fall. And although every Korean supermarket sells banchan, Jun Won's pristine versions are less salty, relying instead on precisely balanced seasonings. Hers is the kind of wholesome home-style food many crave but few now have time to prepare.
Jun's dishes transport the brilliant fish-centric cuisine of Chungcheongnam-do to the tables of her simply furnished dining room. The region's coastline, surrounding the province on three sides, is dappled with villages and towns devoted to fishing. Local cooks have spent centuries dreaming up preparations that complement the diverse catch, from near weightless broths to robust heartily spiced sauces.
Often the simplest preparations make the best backdrop for banchan's multitude of tastes. For those not fond of chile spice, the pan-fried fish — mild white beltfish or long skinny corvina filled with crunchy roe — are among the choices.
Pollack "casserole," a clear, chile-kissed broth holding thick steaks of the mild-fleshed fish and several kinds of mushrooms, is the dish that launched Jung Ye Jun's business. It gained a following at her first tiny cafe, which was located in a men's health spa, and its fans were Jun Won's first devotees.
A more opulent version of the soup, rather like a bouillabaisse, comes loaded with shrimp, clams, oysters and other shellfish.
Steamed beltfish might sound like something served in an orphanage, but be patient with the minimalist descriptions on the menu. The silky, tender fish sits under a thatch of simmered scallions in a temperature-raising chile-garlic sauce. You can easily slip its moist meat from the skeleton with the nudge of a chopstick or soupspoon. Baby octopus in a sweet-tart peppery sauce laced with vegetables is the butteriest, tenderest you'll ever eat.
It's fun to roll your own gool bossam — sliced, braised pork belly and briny, sweet baby oysters that you wrap in softened nappa cabbage leaves together with spicy condiments. And the restaurant does serve the appropriate adult beverages to go with this well-loved anju.
And like any good mom, Jung Ye Jun aims to nurture her flock. She forgoes bland white rice for her magical blend of nutty-tasting sweet red and brown rice mixed with fat barley and a few kidney beans. It requires extra steps to make, of course, but it's one of many that make Jun Won a place worth searching for.
Location: 3100 W. 8th St., No. 101, Los Angeles, (213) 383-8855
Prices: Entrees, $10.95 to $16.50; family-style fish plates, $13.50 to $17.50; bossam with oysters, $28.50.
Details: Open 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Lot parking. Beer, soju, wine. Visa, MasterCard accepted