A spitting cauldron of superheated liquid on a tabletop burner, ejecting droplets of orange goo and puffs of sulfurous steam, the budae jjigae at the Koreatown restaurant Chunju Han-il Kwan is alarming in aspect. Leaves of cabbage careen across the glowing, red maelstrom like so many whirling rafts of the damned. Feathery green chrysanthemum leaves sink into the morass. Those lozenges of pink meat? Sliced Spam, straight from the can. The sausages? Hot dogs, sliced into coins. That familiar-looking square of curly noodles? Packaged instant ramen, unless I miss my guess, half-submerged and softening in the roiling broth. I have to admit, until I encountered the budae jjigae at Chunju Han-il Kwan, I half-believed the dish, sometimes called Johnson tang in honor of Lyndon B. Johnson, was more an urban legend than actual food.
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Dishing it out at Chunju Han-il Kwan
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Spitting image: A bubbling cauldron of budae jjigae
The repertoire of Korean cooking includes many, many refined jjigae, thick, chile-dosed soups made with kimchi, homemade tofu or sparkling-fresh fish, shellfish or octopus, choice bits of pork or cattle innards. A proper Korean meal is incomplete without a jjigae or its near-neighbor tang. Budae jjigae, the legendary specialty of Chunju Han-il Kwan, is oddly tasty, but it is the furthest thing from refined. The dish is a culinary souvenir from the impoverished years after the Korean War, when the readiest sources of protein were canned provisions cadged from the American military bases around Seoul, which were then simmered with an ordinary kimchi jjigae to make the unlovely stew — an early if inadvertent example of fusion cuisine. (The hot-dog-garnished spaghetti Bolognese at the Gardena café Spoon House is probably the Japanese equivalent.) Some sources claim that the contraband came from the base’s dumpsters, some that it came from cans that made their way to the black market. Either way, the result was the same: a wallop of salt, kimchi tartness and chile heat. I suppose we should be thankful that the Chunju Han-il Kwan version omits the customary dollop of canned pork ’n’ beans, even as it adds chewy slices of rice cake.
Chunju Han-il Kwan is an oddly traditional restaurant, paneled with darkened wood and decorated with old cooking implements and veneered cross sections of logs. Heavy beams run across the ceiling, which appears to be patinaed with decades of smoke. The twangs and pentatonic yowls of Korean classical music play at almost subliminally low volume. Old-fashioned wooden panels separate the tables. The restaurant can’t be more than a few years old — my liver retains a vivid imprint of the Bull and Bush, the Scotch-soaked steak house torn down to make way for the mini-mall Chunju Han-il Kwan occupies — but the dining room feels as if it has been there forever.
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The restaurant is well known in Koreatown for its enormous array of panchan, small, cool, free appetizers that appear here in battalions of 10 tiny dishes: the usual cabbage kimchi, chile-soaked cucumbers, cold broccoli, sesame-scented bean sprouts and cubed turnips, but also pickled ferns, small omelets, shreds of candied cuttlefish and simmered chunks of fish, as well as a serving of the cellophane-noodle dish chap chae as big as some restaurants serve as a main course. The standard bowl of rice is a concoction stained purple with beans. There are sautéed cephalopods of every description, jjigaes of half the creatures in the sea and a credible interpretation of gamjatang, the famous potato-and-pork-neck soup. You can get indifferent barbecued short ribs and slabs of sweet, spicy barbecued pork that would be the glory of any anju bar in Koreatown. The herb-laced beef soup with delicate mandu (dumplings) is first-rate, and the noodles for the guksu are handmade. You will even find decent takes on soontofu, the soft-tofu casserole that is usually only found in specialty restaurants, and the rice dish bibimbap.
I am especially fond of the pancakes here: lacy potato pancakes that taste like thin, scallion-laced latkes; tart, crunchy kimchi pancakes; ultracrisp seafood pancakes studded with bits of chopped octopus.
For a restaurant that only recently acquired an English menu and posted a transliterated sign outside, Chunju Han-il Kwan has an oddly high profile even outside Koreatown — possibly because Koreatown is a logical center of Los Angeles nightlife at the moment, because an evening of soju and budae jjigae has become a rite of passage, and possibly because of the restaurant’s immense popularity among the followers of the social-network site Yelp.com, who have given it more than 50 reviews in just the past couple of months, a profile comparable to those of restaurants like Beacon or Angeli Caffé. For the Yelpers, for the non-Koreans who have made Chunju Han-il Kwan their home, it’s all about the budae jjigae.
Chunju Han-il Kwan, 3450 W. Sixth St., Koreatown, (213) 480-1799. Open 24 hours. Beer, wine and soju. Valet parking. Amex, MC, V. Dinner for two, $26-$36; $7.67 lunch specials. Recommended dishes: seafood pancake, budae jjigae, dumpling soup.