Like its more rice-intensive counterpart bi bim bap, hwe dup bap is an interactive creature that doesn’t really come into existence until you mix it together, tossing and stirring, sluicing the salad with as much sweet, hot chile paste as you care to squeeze out of a ketchup-tinted squirt bottle, tossing in a bowl of hot rice at the last second and tossing the salad some more. Hwe dup bap is one of those dishes where each bite is subtly varied in spice, marine savor and green crunch, with the smelt roe crackling under your teeth, with the raw fish melting into the hot rice. Good hwe dup bap — and A-Won’s is very good — is as alive and vivid and evanescent as a wildflower, the taste of the spring’s first asparagus, or the throwaway phrase in a Lily Allen song that breaks your heart.
Although more than half of the customers at A-Won seem to order the hwe dup bap, the sushi assortments, subtle abalone porridge and various tempura-intensive dinner combinations are rarely cause for complaint. The sushi chefs here do an excellent version of the Korean standard called al bap, a bowl of seasoned rice layered with various eggs — crunchy smelt roe, oozy salmon roe, hen-egg omelet and a generous smear of creamy sea urchin roe, among other things — which are in turn garnished with sprouts, candy-sweet pickles and a short length of broiled eel.
The restaurant’s other great specialties are its tangs, seething soups served in superheated communal pots, and first among them may be the al tang, a brick-red concoction of radishes and chrysanthemum leaves and vermiform enoki mushrooms boiled together with condom-shaped sacs of cod roe, frothing and spitting at the table from the violence of their preparation, a brew that burns your lips both with its chile-heat intensity and its subvolcanic temperature. When the al tang has cooled sufficiently for you to approach it without damage to lips, upper palate and various internal organs, you may notice the nuanced smack of the sea beneath the pepper, the low-tide sweetness of the poached roe, and the slippery crunch of the oddly convoluted cod parts, twisted like inside-out brains or sets of intestines, that bob in the broth like pale dumplings. You also may be happier not knowing that the anonymous organs are sacs of poached cod sperm, the yin to the roe’s tasty yang.
A-Won, 913½ S. Vermont Ave., L.A., (213) 389-6764. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 4-11 p.m. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Beer, wine and soju. Guarded lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $28-$46, more with sushi. Recommended dishes: hwe dup bap, al bap, spicy cod roe soup.
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