Page 5 of 10
THE CHOSUN PEOPLE
For decades, Woo Lae Oak on Western was the favorite Korean restaurant of people who didn’t like Korean food all that much, a fancy place where they could convince themselves that galbi wasn’t all that different from an ordinary steak dinner. (Mostly because it wasn’t: The restaurant’s pallid galbi very much resembled the London broil at any number of steak houses.) Now that the Koreatown Woo Lae Oak is on hiatus for a year or so, the conservative Koreatown choice is probably Chosun Galbi, which has the patio-side glamour of a Beverly Hills garden party, granite tables, gorgeous waitresses, and expensive, well-marbled meat that glows as pinkly as a Tintoretto cherub. Make sure to throw some shrimp on the barbie, too — the pricey little beasties crisp up like a dream. 3330 W. Olympic Blvd., (323) 734-3330.
Imagine a Korean pub shoehorned into the fanciest restaurant in Los Angeles circa 1953, complete with the lawn jockeys at the top of the stairs and oil paintings of earls above the oxblood leather banquettes. The food, you understand, is not exactly the point at the Prince, which seems to specialize in sugary stir-fries and American dishes that might have been inspired by Quad Cities Rotary banquet menus. The basic unit of currency here is the kimchi pancake, a thin mass of egg batter laced with fermented cabbage, lashed together with scallions, then fried to an exquisite, oily crispness. Kimchi pancakes come free with your drinks, which makes sense, because the greasy heat of the things is enough to power you through an entire double-size bottle of Korean Hite beer. 3198 1/2 W. Seventh St., (213) 389-2007.
Han Bat, hidden on a side street of the Western Avenue drag, is a shrine to the cult of Korean beef soup, sullongtang, to the extent that there is barely no other food served, no other food needed. Good sullongtang, which is completely without fat, is an incandescent, glowing white, the result of long, patient cooking and the essence of many bones. Before it was largely supplanted by Vietnamese pho in Koreatown, sullongtang, which also carries a payload of thin noodles, sliced brisket, and various organs if you want it that way, was as locally popular as ramen is in Little Tokyo. The soup is unsalted: You season it to taste with a half-teaspoon or so of coarse salt from a container on the table. You also add loads of freshly chopped scallion greens, which soften quickly in the hot broth, and possibly a spoonful of the chile paste, which tints the soup flamingo pink. Flamingo pink: the color of victory. 4163 W. Fifth St., (213) 383-9499.
As delicious as a bowl of sullongtang can be, it is incontrovertible: The sharp mineral smack of long-boiled beef bones is distinctly not to everybody’s taste. Gently spiced Vietnamese pho, on the other hand, may be the greatest beef-bone soup in the world, mellowed with cinnamon and star anise, roundly meaty from long simmering, and garnished with a lavish variety of cattle parts and a salad bowl’s-worth of herbs. So it was probably only a matter of time before the Korean community clasped pho to its bosom, and more than a dozen Vietnamese noodle shops, most of them operating 24 hours a day, speckle the boulevards of Koreatown. None of these pho shops is quite up to the standards of Golden Deli or Pho 79, but there are worse places to end up at 4 in the morning than at one of the various locations of Pho 2000, soaking up the excess soju with a warm bowl of noodles. 215 N. Western Ave., (323) 461-5845, and other locations.
To connoisseurs, a restaurant is best judged by the quality of its panchan, the little dishes of kimchi and other preserved foods laid out at the beginning of a Korean meal. And panchan rarely come any better than they do at Sa Rit Gol — the candied dried fish, the crisp water kimchi of radish, the chile-marinated squid, even the ordinary cabbage kimchi, are admired by the kind of old-line Korean traditionalists who insist on making their own kimchi, miso, and soy sauce, at home. But even if your own exposure to panchan extends no further than a couple of excursions to Soot Bull Jeep, you are still likely to recognize the focused tanginess and the careful, freshness-preserving fermentation of the kimchi at Sa Rit Gol as extraordinarily good. Sa Rit Gol is indeed one of the best restaurants in Koreatown, a rustic joint still decorated with raw wood and Korean beer posters, full of two-fisted drinkers, locally famous for its spicy pork barbecue, grilled belly pork and grilled pike — classic drinking food — as well as bubbling crab casseroles, black-cod soups and braised shiitake mushrooms with spinach. 3189 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 387-0909.