A couple of weeks ago at the annual KBBQ Cook-off, for outstanding Koreatown barbecue dishes, a woman walked up to the judging table after the winner had been chosen and asked if I'd ever been to Soban, a clean, well-lighted restaurant on the western edge of Koreatown. Of course I'd been to Soban — its banchan are renowned for both quality and number — although I usually was distracted by Baek Hwa Jung across the street, where the barbecued ribs rock. Soban's real specialty is eun dae gu jorim, probably the best spicy braised cod in Koreatown, and although I occasionally craved its soft, melting sweetness, it's hard to compete with ribs.
It seems like just yesterday that we were talking about banchan, the small, salad-y side dishes that accompany any respectable Korean meal. If you eat in Koreatown a lot, the kimchi jjigae and grilled beef may start to run into one another, but the banchan is as distinctive as a fingerprint, and many Koreans probably favor one restaurant over another less for the spring of the naengmyun noodles or the succulence of the chicken than for the precise handling of the pickled bamboo shoots or salted fern stems.
On the hottest summer days, the thought of an all-banchan meal is almost dreamy: a stream of cool pungencies without the threat of boiling soup to harsh your mellow; exquisite pickled vegetables of every variety and in endless combination. If Seoul ever hits the haute cuisine big time, crowded with tourists eager to experience the recombinant DNA of Korean cooking the way they are to taste the deconstructed modernist cooking in post–El Bulli Spain, it will be banchan they're hungry for, 30 to 40 courses with the cumulative weight of air.
Soban is a slightly odd institution, nice in a way that's probably closer to the way your mom's best friend's kitchen is nice than to any decorator-driven slickness, run by a couple who speak minimal English but seem to make themselves understood; not especially cheap, but full of families. The cooking would go brilliantly with a glass of lightly chilled Beaujolais or an icy bottle of soju, but alcohol is neither served nor permitted. The menu is pretty small, but a lot of customers seem to come several times a week. The English-language picture menu is even smaller, yet there always seems to be something you've never spotted before. (If anybody gets to try the dish where you wrap meat and vegetables in big ggaenip leaves, which seemed to be on half the tables last time I was in, let me know how it is.)
At Soban, the waitress almost staggers under the weight of the banchan, 15 or so small, square dishes, which she arranges with the triumphant smile of a Scrabble player with a 112-point play that includes an X, a Q and a triple word score. She knows what she's just dealt: extra-fermented kimchi; braised celery dusted with ground nuts; superspicy turnip; spinach with sesame seeds; fried tofu with nut oil and soy; an intriguingly bitter green that could be but probably isn't chrysanthemum greens.
As you start going to Soban, you start to wonder: Do you merit the fern stems and spicy raw oysters because you have become a regular, or would they have come anyway? Is the blandness of the bean sprouts in service of a particular grammar of banchan, or are they just less salty today? Did the people at the next table get more of the smooth egg tofu? Can I get more of the sweet, crunchy marinated beans if I ask? The banchan course is never the same twice.
After the banchan, you can get a soup made with the house-fermented soy paste doenjang, although there's no particular reason to — its outstanding characteristic is that the soup looks like a black-and-white photograph of itself. It's never a bad idea to get a whole grilled mackerel, which is plain but nicely done, or a seafood pancake enriched with gobs of tofu.
The most famous dish here is probably the spicy galbi jjim, a long-cooked short rib stew whose glossy, stickily complex chile sauce is flavored with dried fruit and a handful of whole garlic cloves, and there may be no better galbi jjim in L.A., although the dish is as common as Coca-Cola.
But the woman at the cookoff, Steph, a prolific Yelp aficionado, was there to tell me about the ganjang gaejang, raw marinated crab, which she swore was the best single dish in L.A. "If you haven't had the ganjang gaejang,'' she said, "you really have no business talking about Koreatown.''
I hadn't had it. I hadn't even noticed it on the menu. And the waitress was in no mood to serve it to me — I would hate it, she insisted. She could find me a cooked crab dish. There was more soup.
I like ganjang gaejang quite a bit, but it is sometimes hard going. The crabs are too small, which means you get more shell than meat, or they're too gooey, or they have been too long from the sea. Some restaurants include the crab in the banchan; here, it's the most expensive thing on the menu, at $29.95. And I've always believed ganjang gaejang must be consumed with beer.
Then the crab came out of the kitchen, two neatly bisected blue crabs, not transformed by rice wine, as is the norm, but by what seemed to be a soy-tinged distillation of the animal's juices, crabbier than the crab itself. When you sucked at a leg, the flesh pulled cleanly away from the shell, firm but not cooked, briny and sweet. The crab was nearly glazed with big clumps of roe. The carapace brimmed with musky juice — you spoon hot rice into the shell and eat it.
The best single dish in L.A.? Hard to say. But a reason to keep Soban on speed dial.
SOBAN | 4001 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown | (323) 936-9106 | Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun., 9 a.m.-10 p.m. | MC, V | No alcohol | Limited lot parking | Dinner for two, food only, $30-$50 | Recommended dishes: spicy galbi jjim; eun dae gu jorim; marinated raw crab; tofu pancake