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Critic's Choice: Koreatown

Specialty restaurants to explore beyond Korean barbecue.

October 20, 2011
  • A hot pot at On Dal 2 comes loaded with crab.
A hot pot at On Dal 2 comes loaded with crab. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For the…)

Koreatown is easy to navigate when it comes to some of its culinary standbys. You probably know your favorite spots for Korean barbecue and pork bossam; naeng myun cold noodles when it's hot out; that bubbling, spicy tofu soup soondubu when it's chilly; and sul long tang oxtail soup for your hangovers. But with so many other specialty restaurants to explore, here are a few suggestions beyond Korean barbecue from recent Find columns.

Mapo: At this tiny restaurant tucked into a strip mall at the corner of 6th and Normandie, there are some barbecue dishes on the menu, but they're merely perfunctory. What you want are the country classics — soups, casseroles, handmade noodles. The specialty of the house is something called "delicious soup with dough flakes." The dish is about as stripped down as you can get: a simple broth, studded with a few bits of squash and the tiniest clams you can imagine, and loaded to the brim with thick dough flakes.

3611 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 736-6668.

Jun Won: Customers enter behind the restaurant, down a tile-lined staircase and through the first door on the right. It's not easy to find but once inside, a sparkling multicolored spread on every table gives the place the feel of a lavish tapa party. Fish is the star of the menu, but that's only one reason for the loyal clientele. 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.

3100 W. 8th St., No. 101, Los Angeles, (213) 383-8855.

On Dal 2: Messy, spicy crab and seafood hot pots are, you could say, hot right now on L.A.'s Korean dining scene. Here a waiter places a steaming pot of broth on the tabletop burner and spoons in a luscious crab cake from the shell in which it cooked. He extracts one of the crabs from the cooking pot and quarters it, snips off the leg ends and cuts open the remaining shell. Next comes the stir-fried rice course. To a bowl of rice the waiter adds chrysanthemum leaves, a little kimchi, roasted soybean powder and the remaining broth. Lightly enriched with roasted sesame oil as it fries, the rice, to many, is the best part of the meal.

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

Moobongri Soondae: An entire wall is given over to backlit color illustrations of every dish, including combination plates of soondae (blood sausage, prepared here with 17 herbs and spices), soondae bokum (for three or more people) and the classic soup soondaekook. The rich, gamey soup is scattered with soondae slices that have soaked up lots of broth. A soondaekook meal here follows a ritual. You take the whole-radish kimchi and cabbage kimchi from large crocks on the table and cut them into bite-size portions. Then season the soup to taste, tossing in crushed mustard seed, sliced spring onions and tadegi, a dense, fiery crimson chile paste.

2949 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 387-1600.

Gamja-Gol: Regulars come to this legendary Koreatown fixture for the house specialty: gamjatang. One of the world's culinary marvels, the rustic, spice-laden soupy stew is based on slowly cooked pork backbones. Each portion holds a huge, precisely trimmed and perfectly cooked whole potato that cruises the bottom of the serving dish like a submarine, crowned with a towering tangle of fresh perilla leaves. Short-grain rice studded with red beans comes alongside. Ask for rice stewed with the remaining sauce and a bit of kimchi.

3003 W. Olympic Blvd., No. 107, Los Angeles, (213) 381-6446.

food@latimes.com

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