Jonathan Gold Reviews Eighth Street Soondae
Do you remember the first time a website seemed to change your life? Because I've been spending a lot of time lately on Google Translate, which may not have evolved from the sticks-and-rocks Babelfish quite as much as one might like, but when used properly becomes something like magic, a click that helps you make sense of the city without rising from your chair. With Burmese text you're pretty much out of luck, but now you can translate Arabic websites, Danish recipes, Chinese newspapers and sometimes Bollywood sites, although the Hindi tends not to be that good. You need not feel illiterate because you can't read La Opinion — you can be the first on your block to know the details of Justin Bieber's South American tour. The Sueddeutsch Zeitung? You are so there (great culture section; slide shows of bad jokes that only improve in translation).
The highest use of Google Translate may be to scan restaurant listings, to discover the neighborhood Thai restaurant with a secret payload of Chiang Mai-style dishes, to marvel that the Chinese name of one New Chong Qing is Jinshan City Flagship Store of Hot Pot, and of another is One Boiled Fish, or to find out that Tasty Noodle House is really called Dalian-Style Dishes, which makes sense because that's what they serve. You might be surprised how many restaurants name themselves after their best dish or the region they specialize in.
Even more useful is the site's ability to make sense of L.A.'s Korean restaurants, which often line up by the dozens in big Koreatown malls, signs untranslated, specialties mysterious.
Soondae, for example, Korean blood sausage, is a popular dish, and you probably could have led a friend to two or three places that serve the stuff, including Western Soondae or that superfunky place down on Vermont. Soondae has always had its place. But without Google Translate and a bit of legwork, it would have been difficult to tell that Koreatown had not just a few but dozens of soondae specialists; that we were in the middle of a full-blown soondae renaissance.
Soondae is good stuff — hog casings stuffed with a restrained, mildly seasoned pudding of ox gore laced through with transparent vermicelli, then either fried into a sort of crisp scrapple, served boiled in soup, steamed or cut into chunks and stirfried with chile paste and vegetables, the street food dish called soondae boekkum. Some restaurants serve nothing but this Korean soondae, usually floating in a rich, livery broth salted with chunks of assorted cattle organs, which is probably not a soup for the unconverted.
I once ate a version of this soondae guk, in a backstreet dive in Seoul, where the blood was cooked in glistening, white anatomical pockets I was unable to identify but I thought were probably boiled cow colon. I was relieved a few days later when I learned that some cooks like to stuff their soondae into squid bodies, which both absorb and take on some of the qualities of the pudding.
This brings us, I think, to Eighth Street Soondae, one of the oldest and most respected of L.A.'s soondae parlors but until recently unknown to me, a restaurant where the blood sausage is treated less as a racy snack than as a necessity of civilized life, where the street-level snack is consumed with both aplomb and plenty of napkins.
You've been to those dining rooms, maybe in Italy, maybe in Japan, where the lunchtime customers seem to have come from the same office complex, and where you can discern the social hierarchy by the way groups seat themselves around the table? This is one of those places, and as a visitor all you can do is marvel.
The lobby is clean, bare and enormous, used mostly by people coming in to pick up some soondae guk for the fellows back at the office. If you are not a regular, you may not immediately be welcomed back to the cozier dining rooms — soondae guk, you understand, will never be as universally loved as bulgogi — but when you are, the reception is friendly enough, especially when you prove yourself by ordering pretty much the only thing Eighth Street Soondae serves.
First, there are the panchan, of course, the inevitable small dishes of pickled daikon and kimchi and oiled bean sprouts that precede a Korean meal, plus an unusual salted fish condiment you may associate with the steamed pork wrap called bo ssam. Then you've probably ordered one of the combination plates — a big pile of blood sausage, sliced into crunchy rounds, plus generous piles of boiled pork intestines, about a hundred times milder than you fear they might be, along with some pigs' ear and some liver. There's soup with this, a communal pot of soondae guk with the requisite organy treats, and you'll want to crank up the volume a bit with salt and chile paste. You'll also end up ordering a plate of soondae boekkum for the table, not because you're hungry for bean paste but because it sizzles so prettily when the waitress brings it to the next table.
EIGHTH STREET SOONDAE | 2703 W. Eighth St., Koreatown | (213) 487-0038 | Cash only | No alcohol | Difficult lot parking | Takeout | Combo plates, $11.99-$15.80; soups, $7.50-$8.50. Recommended dishes: soondae, soondae jip.
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