Cold as a Kudzu Vine in Winter
Is there anything more refreshing than naengmyon on a blistering summer day? Because if anything can reduce ambient body heat more efficiently than a bowl of the cold noodle soup at Koreatown's Yu Chun Chic Naeng Myun, medical science has yet to discover what it might be — drifts of strong broth, so cold that they rise from the bowl in airy snowdrifts of beefiness, as tart and sweet and chilled as a properly made cocktail. (Is ice the bartender's flame, as Eric Alperin suggests? Very well: Ice is also the flame of the naengmyon chef.)
The noodles, made from the ground roots of the same kudzu vine that is the bane of gardeners in the American South, are wire-thin, impossibly stretchy and of a tarry blackness, at least when wetted, that is intense enough to suck light out of the air. (When the waitress comes over to snip the noodles into manageable lengths, she uses what I swear are heavy-duty garden shears.) There is a halved boiled egg, a few slivers of pickled daikon, and a slice or two of cold boiled beef. You are given the opportunity to doctor the broth with stinging spoonfuls of Korean mustard, like the Philippe's condiment multiplied by three, but you probably won't bother.
You've had naengmyon, at least I'm pretty sure you have, that odd cold-noodle dish that shows up toward the end of a Korean barbecue meal: a big, chilled stainless-steel bowl from which you sample two bites before you push it away in favor of the last burnt tentacle that had been hiding under the charred clove of garlic. The ignored naengmyon tends to come in one of two varieties — either as mool naengmyon, floating in a gamy, underseasoned meat broth that tastes like way-overboiled beef; or as bibim naengmyon, sealed in a thick, sweet chile sauce, often with chunks of boiled stingray. You can alter the beef broth with vinegar and Korean mustard. You're kind of stuck with the red goo, although you can always requisition some of the sharper chile paste, called gochujang, which is undoubtedly hanging out in a small dish somewhere on the table. Naengmyon, even in its more exalted forms, has never seemed like one of Koreatown's more exalted attractions.
Yet sightings of great restaurant naengmyon have been floating around Koreatown for decades, and when you try the famous places, the noodles can be pretty good. Ham Hung, a restaurant I first paid attention to when it ran an exotic-meats buffet in the 1980s, is far better known in the community for the stretchy potato-starch naengmyon, a specialty of the North Korean city from which the restaurant takes its name. The restaurant Chung Ki Wa has always been known for its especially beefy, buckwheat naengmyon, although most of the customers seem to come for the inexpensive barbecue.
And of course the weird but compelling naengmyon served at the Corner Place is a Koreatown cult item, sugary and mysteriously refreshing — and rumored to include 7-Up as one of its ingredients. As generations of K-town denizens have discovered, it may be easier to steal gold from Fort Knox than it is to smuggle naengmyon out of the Corner Place: Nobody is going to reverse-engineer the broth on Corner's watch.
Chil Bo Myun Ok, the other famous Koreatown naengmyon specialist, also forbids takeout orders of the noodles — the last time a friend tried, I was sure that we would all be permanently barred from the restaurant, although we got away with a warning instead.
Yet it is at Yu Chun, which has all the aesthetics of an army mess hall, where the flavors are most compelling; at Yu Chun where you see men raise the massive bowls and drain them as if they were flagons of ale; Yu Chun, where the only other permissible thing to order is mandoo, dumplings the size of a fat man's fist filled with minced beef and a surprisingly modest slug of chopped cabbage kimchi. (You would not be entirely out of line if you tried the restaurant's take on pork-kimchi bibimbap, served on a superheated stone platter.)
Yu Chun's mool naengmyon is cold enough to give you an ice cream headache. Yu Chun's naengmyon is so cold that the waiters customarily bring mugs of peppery hot soup as you eat it, which may be the restaurant equivalent of St. Bernards bringing hot toddies to travelers stranded in the frozen Alps. Yu Chun's naengmyon is cold enough to eat for lunch today.
YU CHUN CHIC NAENG MYUN: 3185 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown. (323) 382-3815. Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. MC, V. No Alcohol. Valet parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $20-$26. Recommended dishes: chic naeng myun, kimchi mandu.
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