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Hen Party

Pure poultry: samgyetang (Photos by Anne Fishbein)

{mosimage}Veiled in steam like an idol from a 1930s serial, samgyetang, chicken-ginseng soup, ranks first among the massive roster of Korean morning-after tonics: broth, salt, a tiny hen stuffed with glutinous rice and aromatics, whose health-giving vapors alone could cure the common cold. You could consider samgyetang the Korean equivalent of Jewish chicken-in-a-pot, if you could imagine a matzo ball actually stuffed into a chicken — comforting mama-made health food that just happens to cushion a hangover. If the soup isn’t enough, samgyetang specialists usually keep a comforting shot of soju, even ginseng-infused soju, close at hand.

It’s pretty easy to find samgyetang in Koreatown — Kobawoo has an especially good version — but the queen of samgyetang joints is undoubtedly Keumsan Samgyetang, a branch of a well-regarded restaurant in Korea and a temple to all things chicken: boiled, stewed, sautéed, roasted and cut into its constituent parts.

Even by the standards of Korean chicken-specialty restaurants, Keumsan is a peculiar place. Hidden at the rear of a standard Koreatown mini-mall, the exterior is emblazoned not with the restaurant’s name but rather the address of its Web site. If, like me, you didn’t notice the yellow chicken decals on the window as you sped by on Western, you might have assumed the storefront belonged to a computer shop, or at best an Internet bang. The spoons and metal chopsticks hide in wooden boxes on each table, and the menu and the walls are largely taken up by pictures of an elaborate, expensive rice-cake confection sold not at the restaurant but at the bakery next door. If you have brought a small child along to dinner, he or she may be presented with a plush chicken also bearing the restaurant’s URL.

{mosimage}When you settle in at the restaurant and lean into a shot or two of soju or iced barley tea, you are brought small plates of simple but delicious panchan: appetizers of crunchy radish pickled in a fiery chile paste, a few leaves of cabbage kimchi, perhaps some cucumber in bean paste. If you want to postpone the inevitable, there are big plates of chicken gizzards sautéed with scallions and whole garlic cloves, which are as irresistible as fajitas; soothing bowls of chicken porridge; and milk-colored chicken noodle soup. The other house specialty is probably dak-galbi, a spicy, delicious stir-fry of vegetables and the chewy, gamy meat from old hens (as the Web site puts it: “useless beings for the farm because they cannot make enough eggs”), but you can also get steamed chicken, boiled chicken, spicy chicken soup and the odd dish of octopus or short ribs.

What you invariably will get, though, is the samgyetang, a crock of mild, cloudy broth fragrant with the prickly scent of ginseng, dominated by a wee, dumpling-size chicken stuffed with sticky rice, jujubes, whole garlic cloves and a gnarled sliver of ginseng root that traces the contour of the chicken’s cavity like some kind of alien internal organ. You stir a bit of roasted salt into the broth, a bit of highly flavored chile paste if you are so inclined, and dig into the thing, stripping meat from bone, excavating clumps of rice, exploring the elusive sweetness of the jujubes, and spitting remnants into the plastic-lined canister that has been provided for the purpose. The deluxe version of ­samgyetang here includes a full hen per person, served clustered in a giant, seething stainless-steel pot set atop an electric burner, and is followed by bowls of gook soo, knife-cut Korean noodles, that simmer down to soft slitheriness in the concentrated broth.

The site, www.keumsan.co.kr, is pretty interesting, full of testimonials to the original Seoul restaurant’s soup, its compassion for the differently abled (their samgyetang is simmered for six hours instead of two, making the chicken easier to chew), and the wisdom of the founder, who is given to asking his customers to “pray for the repose of mercilessly sacrificed chickens’ souls” taken in the “bloom of their youth.” Unlike Colonel Sanders, he confesses that he has “given so much torment to chickens.” You also learn that the other specialty of the restaurant is a kind of marsh-snail stew, although it doesn’t seem to be in evidence in the Los Angeles operation. Presumably, marsh snails don’t have much in the way of souls.

Keumsan Samgyetang, 1144 S. Western Ave., Koreatown, (323) 731-9999. Open Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Beer and soju. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $24–$40. Recommended dishes: samgyetang; ­sautéed chicken gizzards.

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Keumsan Sam­gyetang - Closed

1144 S. Western Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90006

323-731-9999

keumsan.co.kr


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