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MUNG THE MAGNIFICENT
Kobawoo, which started out as a greasy spoon almost two decades ago, has mellowed into a Koreatown institution, a polished, respectable destination restaurant with some of the best food in the neighborhood at prices almost unbelievably low. Kobawoo has a decent chicken soup, and it is a great place to try the standard called bossam, a sort of combo plate of oysters, sliced pork belly and ultraspicy kimchi. The funky communal pot of bean-paste chigae, or stew, which follows the entrée at a lot of restaurants, is spicy and delicious. The pig’s feet have their fans. But it’s still the home-style pindaeduk, mung-bean pancakes, that keep drawing me back to Kobawoo — the pancakes are ethereal beneath their thin veneer of crunch, melting away almost instantly in the mouth like a sort of intriguingly flavored polenta. 698 S. Vermont Ave., (213) 389-7300.
Near the cash register at the bakery Cake Town Garden is a glass warming case, filled with what look like the most beautiful jelly doughnuts you have ever seen: expertly fried, a gorgeous golden brown, and flat as a stack of CDs. They smell great, too — the folks at Cake Town are nothing if not masters of all things doughy. But when you finally get one of them out to the car, you may be in for a surprise. Because despite their appearance, these babies are not filled with jelly, custard or even sweetened beans, but a cabbagey vegetable stew. Oddly, this is not disappointing. 551 S. Western Ave., (213) 480-1010.
On weekends, the line to get into Dae Sung Oak usually winds out onto the sidewalk, and the tabletop barbecue, the kimchi stew and the naengmyon, cold buckwheat noodles with raw stingray, served in the posh upstairs dining room are pretty good. Unusually for Koreatown, where restaurants tend to be inward-looking fortresses, there is a view out onto the busy street below. The panchan includes little bowls of spicy pickled crab. But the soups here, the mainstay of the downstairs dining room, are even better than the upstairs galbi, especially a version of sullongtang that fixes the specific mellowness of beef brisket with the loving exactness Raphael once applied to memorializing his lover’s smile. 2585 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 386-1600.
HAVE A RICE DAY
Bibimbap, a dish of rice mixed at the table with vegetables, chile paste and perhaps a fried egg, is reputed to be the Korean staple most suited to the Western palate, the dish that may someday be as popular among Californians as the pizza or the teriyaki stick. Yet some of the worst Asian meals I have ever eaten have come from Koreatown bibimbap specialists, including the mall restaurant whose 20-item bibimbap tasted like leftovers scraped from a fast-food salad bar, and a popular bibimbap chain whose gooey specialty proved uniquely inedible. The kitchen-sink aspect of the dish tends to play into the worst tendencies of a particular type of cook. But in the right restaurant, bibimbap can be fairly spectacular, the flavors of the vegetables heightened and melded by the heat of the chile paste, the different intensities of crunch becoming almost contrapuntal under the teeth. I especially like the variation called dol sot bibimbap, served in an ultraheated stone pot that creates a crisp, slightly scorched crust where the mixture hits the stone and infuses the rice with a subtly pervasive smokiness. The bibimbap at Jeon Ju, a restaurant from the southern area of Korea where the dish originated, is perfect. And don’t miss Jeon Ju’s spicy cod stew, which may be the best in Koreatown. 2716 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 386-5678.
Koreatown is blessed with more all-night restaurants than the rest of Los Angeles put together: noodle parlors and soup dens, greasy spoons, unremarkable grills and after-hours joints where soju sometimes mysteriously makes its way into teacups. But at 4 in the morning, Hodori, named for the dweeby cartoon tiger that was the mascot for the ’88 Seoul Olympics, may as well be the only place in town: brightly lit as any McDonald’s, hazy with steam from the kitchen, and jammed with young people who sit 12 to a table, sobering themselves up with kimchi fried rice. For better or for worse, Hodori is the Canter’s of Koreatown. 1001 S. Vermont Ave., No. 102, (213) 383-3554.
We have already discussed, I believe, the kimchi pancake, the seafood pancake, the mung bean pancake, the scallion pancake, and the potato pancake with a single chrysanthemum leaf impressed upon its bosom. But as Dr. Freud might have said had he lived in Koreatown instead of dank old Vienna, sometimes a pancake is just a pancake. At these moments, we are always comforted by the knowledge that at Koo’s Grill, a sort of shed set up near the entrance to the California Supermarket on Western Avenue at Fifth Street, a buck will buy us what appears to be a plain, old, ordinary pancake, with a sweet bean or two in the batter, sure, but drizzled with syrup and served mouth- sizzlingly hot on a napkin.