Jonathan Gold's 60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know
See Also: A Google map for all 60 of the Korean dishes Jonathan Gold says every Angeleno should know, read "5 Koreatown Restaurants Open 24 Hours: Hangover Soup," learn about "5 Koreatown Beer Joints: Hite Requirement," or just look at more of Anne Fishbein's beautiful Koreatown food photography.
I had been writing about the restaurants for ages, but when I assembled the Weekly's first Koreatown guide in 2004, the sheer size and vitality of the scene were even then astonishing. The area already seemed to have more late-night restaurants than the rest of the city put together, a network of nightclubs that rivaled Hollywood's, and a hard-drinking restaurant culture whose most enthusiastic participants visited not just one eating place per evening but often three or four: an anju bar for a soju and a snack; a restaurant for dinner; a norebang (karaoke bar) or billiards hall or dance club where there is also a snack or two; and then perhaps one of the 24-hour places for a pot of soup or a greasy seafood pancake to take some of the edge off the alcohol.
To know Koreatown meant exploring not just one of these kinds of places, but all of them; not just curiosity but endurance.
Koreatown, which occupies an expanding area between Hancock Park and downtown, may well be the most vibrant expat enclave anywhere in the world, a neighborhood of Korean driving ranges and Korean herbalists, karaoke rooms and supermarkets, movie complexes and modern shopping malls that could have been plucked straight out of Seoul.
In the years since then, of course, Korea established itself at the center of Asia's culture. When teenagers swoon over musicians, they are as likely to be K-pop stars like 2PM or Girls Generation as they are Rihanna or Justin Bieber, and projects like Seoul's river restoration, which turned a downtown superhighway back into the river on whose bed it was originally constructed, are the envy of city planners around the world.
I used to joke that Koreatown was basically a midsized Korean city whose culinary specialties were soondubu and laterally cut short ribs. Now, it is clear, Koreatown is functionally a distant district of Seoul -- in capital as well as in culture, in both commerce and cuisine.
There are some things you should know about dining in the less-fancy sorts of Korean restaurants, even if you're an expert in this sort of thing. The idea of service tends to be different in Korean restaurants from what it is even in other Asian restaurants: The waiters and waitresses are there to take your order, bring you food and fetch the check, period. There will be no discussion of the vegetables in season, or banter about whether the mackerel is better than the cod. The best small restaurants specialize in one or two specialties, and you will be expected to order one of them. Filtered ice water, or perhaps dilute barley tea, are perfectly acceptable as beverages everywhere but bars, and nobody will ever try to upsell you to beer or soju. (You can usually ask to have a water pitcher left on your table.) Banchan, the little dishes of marinated vegetables, kimchi and other things that accompany your meal, will be refilled as many times as you wish, although it is considered poor form to overdo it on lavish freebies like marinated crab or fried fish. You will often find an electronic call button affixed to the table. Do not be shy about using it when you need the check or another round of raspberry wine -- you will feel obnoxious, but it is the protocol.
I arbitrarily capped the number of dishes in this guide at 60, but it is clear that the number could just as well be 160 -- the more I learn about Korean cooking in Los Angeles, the less I feel I know. The basic unit of consumption may still be all-you-can-eat barbecue meals, a phenomenon not covered in depth here, but the energy is clearly elsewhere. And I am already mourning the omission of Ham Hung's naengmyun with skate, Young Dong's sullongtong with tongue, Nakzi Village's stir-fried octopus, chicken wings at the Prince, the spicy fried rice made from the nuclear-hardened remains of Ttu Rak's galbi jjim -- and, really, any serious pancake. Do not hesitate to tell us about your favorite bindaedduk.
In a Japanese shabu-shabu restaurant, you swish bits of meat and vegetables one by one through a pot of simmering broth, noting how each is altered by its cooking, and how each contributes to the harmonious whole. Jing-gee Skhan, named after noted carnivore Genghis Khan, is the Korean equivalent. And, at least as performed at Seoul Garden, its local temple, it seems to be more communal in its approach. There is one kind of meat involved, either chicken, turkey or rosy, absolutely standard slices of beef loin, arranged like peony petals on a platter, and the vegetables come in the form of an enormous salad of herbs, chopped greens and slivered scallions, supplemented with a single sliced mushroom and a few cubes of tofu. Your first sacrifice to the burbling pot is exactly the same as your last, each chopstickful of boiled meat and herbs you fish out of the pot identical. What you experience is the distillation of humble ingredients into something rather powerful, so that by the time the waitress comes by with a plate of fresh udon noodles to cook in what's left of the broth, then finishes by stirring in rice and egg to thicken it into a porridge, what you are left with is something muscular and profound. Does this say something about the character of the Korean people? I would like to think it does. 1833 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 386-8477.
Imagine a Korean kid's lunch box -- meat, rice, vegetables, egg and pickles packed into a flat, metal container. Then imagine the same box shaken until its contents rearrange into a crude bibimbap -- delicious. This may be the only standard restaurant dish anywhere in the world whose origin points to a bored 6-year-old on a playground. You can find a very good dosirak at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, a new barbecue place in the Chapman Plaza owned by the wrestler-turned-movie comedian Kang Ho Dong -- think of him as The Rock crossed with Rob Schneider. It's an appetizer and an upper-body workout rolled into one. 3465 W. Sixth St.; (213) 384-9678.
Enjoy the pie at Mr. Pizza.
Grand Prix pizza
Have you ever seen the Grand Prix pizza at Mr. Pizza Factory? Because even within the world of cross-cultural cuisine, the Grand Prix is a remarkable object, a weighty, doughy construction that can so warp your perceptions of what a pizza might be that it threatens to dent the space-time continuum. Imagine a pie whose geography is neatly bisected, one half resembling a deconstructed shrimp cocktail, the other a plate of nachos. Rising at the edge is a tawny ridge of browned, sweetened, raisin-speckled dough. After you eat the nacho pizza and the shrimp-cocktail pizza, you are supposed to break off pieces of this scone crust and dip them in strawberry jam for dessert. Mr. Pizza Factory is my hero. 3881 Wilshire Blvd.; (213) 738-0077.
If you are fond of litigation, you should probably turn the page. Because of all the hazards inherent in Korean gastronomy -- stray coals, red-hot stones and exploding clams among them -- there may be no foodstuff quite so dangerous as the chewy, sizzling street-food staple called hotteok, as found at Koo's Sweet Rice Pancake Hotteok Cart. You will burn your fingers on the pancake, that's a given; blister your lips; possibly scorch your tongue. But if you've never experienced hotteok, nothing can possibly prepare you for the flood of molten brown sugar from its heart, a delicious, cinnamon-scented goo that shares rather too many characteristics with napalm. Am I imagining things, or is that pure evil behind that griddle? Koo's, in the parking lot behind California Market, 4317 Beverly Blvd.
Sun Ha Jang's duck is cooked on a griddle before you add it to a salad of lettuce and leeks.
Slices of unseasoned duck breast ooze and shrink and sear on a thick, cast-iron griddle at Sun Ha Jang; you snatch them off the heat and fold them into a salad of lettuce and sliced leeks. When a waitress plugs the drain with a hank of cabbage kimchi, it is time to cook the "roast duck": the parts of the bird that don't happen to come from the breast, which you slowly render into duck cracklings. The duck is eaten. The fat boils. A bowl of cooked rice is upended onto the griddle with herbs and your leftover kimchi; it soon will become the richest fried rice of your life. 4032 W. Olympic Blvd.; (323) 634-9292.
School Food Blooming Roll is a brightly lit café a few steps from the CGV triplex -- the first local outpost of a Seoul-based chain. It's very cute, very Hello Kitty, with flat screens blaring K-pop videos and a largely pubescent crowd. The conceit here is, as the restaurant's name implies, school food -- the kinds of things you might have found in your junior high school cafeteria if you had been raised in Korea, circa 2005: gooey, fire-hot ddukbokki with cheese; chicken noodle soup; dumplings; even blood sausage, which probably plays better in Korea than it might in Encino. Foremost among the nostalgic dishes here is the huge assortment of kimbap, which are kind of like Japanese maki and kind of not: tightly wrapped sushi rolls stuffed with things like beef teriyaki, crunchy anchovies, bacon with garlic, and the inevitable Spam and egg. Do Korean kids really eat tar-black squid ink kimbap for lunch? I'll trade you for your peanut butter sandwich ... 621 S. Western Ave.; (213) 380-3663.
Before K-pop, before pirate bars, before indoor driving ranges, there were the private rooms and tuck 'n' roll booths of Dong Il Jang, the cornerstone of modern Koreatown. And at Dong Il Jang was roast gui, thickish slices of well-marbled beef, sizzled in butter in a big, tabletop skillet. The trick is grabbing the beef off the hot metal after it has begun to caramelize but before all the juices have cooked out of it -- which is easy enough to manage even if a waitress doesn't happen to be hovering -- and lubricating it with a bit of sesame oil and salt. Roast gui is technically barbecue, I guess, but it feels more genteel somehow, more old-fashioned than atavistic, like the Korean equivalent of steak Diane. 3455 W. Eighth St.; (213) 383-5757.
Although you might not guess it from the tides of Crown Royal surging down Wilshire on weekend nights, Koreans tend to be as obsessed with health culture as any Westside yogini, and Koreatown is laced with spas and herbalists and wellness centers, sometimes right next door to the places selling all-you-can-eat pork. And there is probably nothing in the Korean repertory healthier than pumpkin porridge with glutinous rice dumplings: five minutes of satori in a bowl. Bon Juk, the local outlet of a Seoul-based chain, is the fanciest porridge parlor in Koreatown, absolutely without harsh edges, and the pumpkin porridge is the star of the menu, sweet, gentle and utterly calming. You can also get your porridge with kimchi and octopus, but it somehow seems beside the point. 3551 Wilshire Blvd.; (213) 380-2248.
Hwe dup bap, a complicated raw-fish salad, at A-Won.
Hwe dup bap
The great Korean contribution to the world's sushi kitchen may well be hwe dup bap, an elaborate, raw-fish salad leavened with dried seaweed and hot rice and flavored with chile paste. And at A-Won, a Koreatown institution devoted to the cult of hwe dup bap, the display is formidable: bowls as big as Valkyrie helmets, mounds of diced halibut, tuna and salmon sashimi, a quart of chopped greens, enough crunchy fish eggs to populate the Pacific Ocean with smelt. 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 squirt bottle, tossing in a bowl of hot rice at the last second and tossing 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, the raw fish melting into the hot rice. Does the chef fight for the best-quality fish with Nobu Matsuhisa each dawn? No, but that's not the point. Good hwe dup bap -- and A-Won's is very good -- is as alive and vivid and evanescent as a wildflower. 913 ½ S. Vermont Ave.; (213) 389-6764.
Need abalone porridge at 5 a.m.? Go to Mountain.
Korean cuisine is nothing if not rich in its variety of hangover chasers, the dishes you want to have between you and the roiling chasm of your melting insides. First among these may be jeonbokjuk, Korean abalone porridge, a simple, fortifying gruel of rice, water and as much abalone as you can afford. Mountain is open 24 hours, and whatever time of day you end up there, squeezed between teetering stacks of takeout containers, almost everybody in the restaurant is eating that abalone porridge, a little runny, decorated with a raw egg yolk that shines like the sun of a new day. If you were uncharitable, you could say that the pricey abalone features almost homeopathically, in concentrations low enough to send the sympathetic circuits of your body vibrating in an abalone-like frequency. Still, the porridge seems to work. As at all porridge restaurants, the banchan, small dishes that accompany the meal, include jangjorim, a bowl of butter-soft beef simmered with soy and sliced chiles. 3064 Eighth St.; (213) 487-7615.
When I want to demonstrate the breadth of the Koreatown restaurant scene to visitors, I often take them to Dae Bok. Because while the great European capitals may have culinary marvels of their own, what they don't have is a serene restaurant devoted to the glories of Korean blowfish stew. So after you persuade the waitress that what you really want is blowfish instead of monkfish, pronounce the words bok jiri a half-dozen times and point to the line drawing of the blowfish printed on the chopstick wrapper, if you promise not to die, you may be rewarded with the delicious mild fish: chunks of tail simmered with bean sprouts and bitter Korean greens on a tabletop burner. You can enhance the soup halfway through with spoonfuls of minced garlic and brick-red gochujang, at which time it technically becomes bok mauentang, but whatever. When you're almost finished, the waitress reappears to mix the dregs with rice, chopped vegetables and a little oil. The porridge fries into a crisp-bottomed porridge of joy. 2010 James M. Wood Blvd.; (213) 386-6660.
Is this preparation from, or even directly inspired by, the cooking of Jeju-do, the island home of Korea's famous black pigs? Likely not. Jeju-do doesn't seem to be much of a burger-and-fries kind of place. But Kalbi Burger's densely packed, ground-pork patty, tinted vivid orange with chiles, grilled, plastered with kimchi and plenty of the chile sauce gochujang, is formidable. Sweet, spicy and dripping juice, the Jeju-do burger packs all the sensations of great pork barbecue between the freshly baked buns. 4001 Wilshire Blvd.; (213) 738-7898.
You find your way into a dark parking lot off Berendo, walk up a wheelchair ramp that seems to lead to a dance studio, and walk through a deserted courtyard, down a hall past a dishwashing station and up a small flight of stairs into DGM (short for Dwight Gol Mok), a movie director's fantasy of a smoke-filled Korean student tavern. Every square inch of the walls is marked with graffiti; vintage K-pop blares and hanging TV screens show the Lakers. The groups of women in the low booths tend to be impossibly great-looking, possibly drawn by the waiters in tight, black T-shirts, who are even cuter. The menus are those untranslated block-of-wood things you have seen in other K-town bars, with tiny, scratchy print that would be impossible to decipher even if you did read hangul. But you will be drinking soju, and you will be eating the same kinds of things you find at every other K-town bar: the spicy beef-leek soup yukgaejang, fried chicken gizzards, or nakji boekkum, tiny octopus stir-fried with sweetish chile sauce. By the time you finish the first bottle of soju, you're going to forget all that. So just get the kimchi pancakes. They're crisp and oily, and exactly what you want. 3275 Wilshire Blvd. (enter off Berendo); (213) 382-8432.
In the years since we first encountered this dessert, we have learned to appreciate the traditional teahouse pat-bingsu, a taut, balanced, barely sweet construction of shaved ice, green tea ice cream, soaked beans and jellies, a quiet bit of Korean Zen. But splashy, trashy bingsu is really more fun, a hot mess of sweet beans, canned fruit cocktail, ice cream, whipped cream and crushed ice, larger than a small child's head. When I first wrote about the bingsu served at Ice Kiss, a bingsu specialist not far from the Chapman Market, I noted that it was sprinkled with bright, crunchy bits that looked and tasted an awful lot like Fruity Pebbles. I have since been informed that they were, in fact, Fruity Pebbles. If you're going to eat like a 6-year-old, you might as well go all the way. 3407 W. Sixth St.; (213) 382-4776.
Tender, carmalized barbecued pork ribs at Baek Hwa Jung.
If you stroll down Olympic in the early evening, the sweet, burnt-pork vapors drifting from Baek Hwa Jung are enough to make you weep, or at least to break into a happy trot toward the source of that magnificent smoke. Almost every restaurant in Koreatown specializes in one dish or another. It is our good fortune that a couple decided to specialize in daeji galbi, barbecued pork ribs that lean into your second bottle of soju like a motorcyclist grinding into a curve. Even if you prefer the pork at Hamji Park, the other great Koreatown rib specialist, it is hard to resist these tender, caramelized, char-flecked bones. Supplement your ribs with an order of the DIY pork-belly wrap gool bossam, which is the second best version in town after Kobawoo House. 3929 W. Olympic Blvd.; (323) 935-5554.
There are some people who believe that soontofu -- soft, freshly made bean curd served as the main ingredient of a Korean jjigae -- originated in L.A.'s Koreatown and made it back to Seoul as an import. There are some people who maintain that there was always something like soontofu in Korea. What nobody denies is that the popularity of the dish started here, at Beverly Soontofu, and spread eastward, bringing health and happiness to the motherland. A bowl of soontofu looks less like food than like a special effect, a heaving, bright-red mass in a superheated cauldron, which spurts geysers, spits like a lake of volcanic lava and broadcasts a fine red mist of chile and broth that tints anything within six inches of the bowl a pale, lustrous pink. Get it with clams. 2717 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 380-1113.
Masan's monkfish stew contains sea squirts, which explode with iodine-y liquid when you bite into them.
Like many Koreatown seafood restaurants, Masan is well known for its live seafood, bubbling displays of abalone, prawns, sea urchin, octopus and eel, which sometimes seem closer to Marineland than to the timid aquaria in Cantonese banquet halls. But Masan is named for a southern coastal city whose streets are lined with restaurants specializing in agujjim, monkfish stew. It is nearly inconceivable to come here without trying a seething bowl of the stuff, spiked with fresh bean sprouts and as much chile as you can stand, and flavored with a handful of chopped scallions and a few sea squirts, peculiar invertebrates that explode into rich, iodine-tinged liquid when you chomp them. The simmered fish is chewy, almost meaty -- less a poor man's lobster than a kind of marine pork. 2851 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 388-3314.
It should be noted that practically every bar in Koreatown serves its own version of hot wings, which, as any buffalo-wing aficionado can attest, speed the consumption of beer like nothing else on Earth. But OB Bear, a venerable Koreatown tavern across the street from Southwestern Law School, serves lots of beer, just amazing amounts of beer, sometimes in the form of minikegs that dwarf the rather small tabletops. And while the whole chicken, which I would guess was double-fried from the glossy tautness of the skin, and the spicy stir-fried squid are nothing to complain about, what keeps the suds flowing are the wings, as sticky and peppery and oily as could be wished for by Duffman himself. 3002 W. Seventh St.; (213) 480-4910.
Pork neck soup
I have been a judge at Korean barbecue contests where I felt like disqualifying myself from the pork round. The distinctive herbal snap and the caramel-y butteriness of the Hamji Park pig was unmistakable among the entries, and I was pretty sure the contest was over before it began. Yet the barbecued ribs, as good as they are, are only the second-best reason to visit Hamji Park. You will see a heaping platter of them on every table -- but right next to the steaming tureen of gamjatang, a thick, scarlet soup made with potatoes, chile and meaty pork neck bones, simmered until the flesh has turned almost to jelly: There is a strong family resemblance to a Oaxacan mole colorado. The Hamji Park gamjatang has its detractors, mostly people grumpy that it costs about twice as much as other decent versions of the soup, but on Sunday morning, when the roof of your mouth is a killing floor, it is hard to put a price on comfort. 3407 W. Sixth St.; (213) 365-8773.
San nak ji
A single octopus, dramatically set off by theatrical lighting in an aquarium, is a masterpiece of rippling muscle and balletic grace, beautiful even in the way it rips open a scallop. So it makes a certain sense that san nak ji, the chopped, still-moving tentacles of a humanely dispatched octopus, ranks first among the Koreatown exotica that aficionados are expected to seek out and enjoy. The tentacles may not be technically alive -- it's a chicken-with-its-head-cut-off-thing -- but they are closer to it than you may be comfortable with: sometimes barely motile but occasionally quite lively; fat, wriggly things that escape onto the table or climb up your chopsticks nearly to your knuckle. You may appreciate the sesame oil-salt dip at Hwal A Kwang Jang not just because it tastes good but because the suckers on the tentacles are still fully functional, and the coating of slippery oil prevents them from maintaining a grip on your tongue or the roof of your mouth. Is it worth it? It can be -- meaty, slightly nutty, definitely alive. But I don't see it replacing cocktail peanuts anytime soon. 730 S. Western Ave.; (213) 386-6688.
If your only experience with intestines involved the chitlins at a Juneteenth picnic, the Koreatown obsession with the things may be a little hard to understand. You find intestines everywhere here, both cow and pig: boiled and put onto combination plates, heaped next to the brisket at all-you-can-eat barbecue places, stuck into soup at bars, sautéed with chile paste, even roasted and served as a free snack with drinks. Korean preparations emphasize the organ's luxurious fattiness, the crispness, not the funkiness. It's not Fear Factor, it's bar eats. A lot of menus offer not just intestines but a half-dozen different cuts of intestine. But, as in all things, you are probably best off with a specialist. And the barbecue restaurant Byul Gobchang is the center of all things beef intestine, with a devoted clientele and a menu that reads like a dissection manual -- the chewy, delicious cylinders of grilled small intestine pack astonishing amounts of garlic. As long as you're here, you might as well get the combination plate, which includes not just choice bits of large intestine and small intestine but also abomasum, the rarely seen fourth stomach of the cow. 3819 W. Sixth St.; (213) 739-0321.
I keep thinking of the dumplings the parents eat near the beginning of Miyazaki's Spirited Away: The king mandoo at Pao Jao are so large, the dimpling on top so exaggerated, that the fluffy, steamy Korean bao look more like something out of a cartoon than they do something you might actually eat for lunch. The filling, I'm pretty sure, involves pork, garlic, glass noodles, garlic, greens and garlic -- just the thing to power a shopping trip at the mall. While you're at Pao Jao, pick up an order of the brilliant shrimp dumplings, too. In the food court of Koreatown Plaza, 928 S. Western Ave.; (213) 385-1881.
An aging fad? Very well, an aging fad. But still: Chuncheon Dakgalbi, a very nice place. A steel pan appears; a flame is lit; what looks like five pounds of cabbage and sweet potato begins to steam over the tabletop burner. The pan starts to bubble, and for the first time you can see the scarlet layer of chicken under the vegetables. A waiter comes over to flip the mass. You wonder if the included dduk, thick rice noodles, are ready to eat. Chile sauce is applied. The cabbage melts down to nothing. The sauce caramelizes. You may eat. Dakgalbi is more meat than salad, more sweet than hot, more chewy than crisp. When you are finished, or almost so, the waiter restarts the fire, squirts some oil in the pan, fries an egg in it, then mixes in your leftovers with rice and a handful of minced Korean herbs and lets it sit until the bottom develops a crunchy crust. This is widely considered to be the best part. 703 S. Vermont Ave.; (213) 388-0285.
The clientele that eats Feng Mao's mutton kebabs is Korean, though the food is Chinese.
Feng Mao isn't a Korean restaurant. It is a restaurant where northeastern Chinese cooks prepare the Beijing version of Xinxiang barbecue for a Korean-speaking clientele. It is Muslim-style cooking accompanied by little dishes of kimchi and presented in a pork-intensive, alcohol-intensive dining room. It's the rough, rustic food of nomads, cooked on tabletop grills in the middle of a megalopolis, in a room blued with fragrant clouds of charred meat, burnt chile and cumin, and hardwood charcoal. What you want are mutton kebabs, as many as you can afford: lozenges of rich meat interspersed with tiny cubes of lamb fat that turn crisp and lubricate the meat as it cooks. Even the existence of Feng Mao feels improbable, one of those cross-cultural carom shots that only seems to make sense within the context of Los Angeles. 414 S. Western Ave.; (213) 388-9299.
Is there ever a wrong time for jajangmyun, or jjajangmyeon, chachiangmian, or zha jiang mian? The divine crankcase sludge of black bean paste, meat and melted onions is as delicious in August as it is in December, and the hand-pulled noodles that traditionally complete the rest of the dish are not to be despised -- although despised the Korean version is, mostly by Chinese who cannot fathom the turbocharging of the Shandong classic. But although player-haters have been issuing downhill alerts on the place for years, I am loyal to the chewy, pungent, ink-black sludge at the venerable Mandarin House, which is still neck-snappingly good after more than 15 years -- although I have recently changed my allegiance to the branch location in the Koreatown Plaza. 928 S. Western Ave.; (213) 386-4588.
Grilled corvina at Olympic Cheonggukjang.
Cheonggukjang, a thick soup made with the fermented Korean bean paste also called cheonggukjang, has an aroma that has been compared to ripe French cheeses, unwashed jockstraps and the city of Vernon -- a Korean equivalent of Japanese natto with a piquancy that even connoisseurs of durian and Taiwanese stinky tofu think is slightly over the top. Once the cheonggukjang is in your lungs, you may be thinking more about survival than you are about lunch. No non-Korean can possibly eat that soup, you may be told -- even at Olympic Cheonggukjang, its Los Angeles temple. It is deep culture. Yet there it is, in a heated black bowl, slippery whole beans bobbing alongside herbs and cubes of tofu. It is your own private fumarole: crimson, smoking and alive. The trick is to gulp the thick fluid as quickly as if it were your first shot of whiskey. The cliché with such foods is that the smell is more fearsome than the taste. Cheonggukjang -- which does have a lovely flavor, a little like toasted barley -- isn't like that. Because after the third bite, and maybe after the second, it takes over your body like a mischevious, animist spirit, making it impossible to concentrate on anything but its presence bubbling up from your skin. 2528 W. Olympic Blvd., #104; (213) 480-1107.
It would take sages far wiser than I to discover why this sputtering mass of corn, mayonnaise and melted cheese is associated with Koreatown bars rather than with Paula Deen. It's a bit of cultural randomness, bubbling in its red-hot iron dish, often sharing table space with things like country-fried chicken gizzards and apple soju in an exoticized tableau of NASCAR Americana. I'm not sure anyone has ever favored a Koreatown bar because of the excellence of its corn cheese. Like electricity or tap water, it's just there. But when you unaccountably find yourself at a place like Toe Bang -- because, Toe Bang -- it sometimes comes down to you and corn cheese against the world. In Chapman Plaza, 3465 W. Sixth St.; (213) 387-4905.
Goat fried rice
You will, of course, be going to Chin-Go-Gae to eat the famous black-goat soup, a frothy, orange cauldron of kid meat, chile and as many fresh gaenip leaves as you can cram into the simmering broth. The goat is formidable. But what everybody likes best is that moment just after the meal, when a waitress enriches the dregs of the soup with a raw egg and some rice, then lets it cook down into a thick, profoundly goaty porridge whose seared edges become black, salty and crisp. Incredible. 3063 W. Eighth St.; (213) 480-8071.
Roast goat at Blurocho.
"How did you know we serve goat?" the waitress asked. "The big picture on the sign outside?" I said. "Oh -- that's right. Goat is our specialty." And so it is: At Bulrocho an arrangement of sliced goat meat is served in a puddle of broth, like a Korean goat pot-au-feu. You pick out a piece of goat, keeping or discarding its rubbery yet delicious skin, and season it to your liking -- smearing it with yellow bean paste, perhaps, spooning on a little of the house condiment made with chopped herbs and chiles, and wrapping it in a pungent leaf of gaenip with a sliver of sliced jalapeno and a clove of raw garlic, making yourself a perfect if diabolical ssam. Bulrocho is open 24/7 -- some rituals feel even more ritualistic at 3 a.m. 955 S. Vermont Ave.; (213) 383-0080.
Of all the soothing tonics in a cuisine rich in them, samgyetang, chicken-ginseng soup, may be No. 1: a crock filled with mild, fragrant broth and a tiny game hen stuffed with glutinous rice, Jujubes, garlic and a boatload of life-giving ginseng. Samgyetang has the place in Korean cooking that chicken-in-a-pot does at a good Jewish deli, except that you have to oversalt it all on your own. Think of the warm, salubrious vapors as nature's own answer to Vick's VapoRub. You'll find samgyetang at almost every traditional restaurant in Koreatown, but the current standard-bearer is probably Buil Sam Gye Tang, where you can get it stuffed with an encyclopedia's worth of medicinal herbs. I've never ventured past the traditional version, but if you get the one with wolfberries and shaved deer antler, let me know how it is. 4204 W. Third St.; (213) 739-0001.
The Yanbian Autonomous Korean Prefecture -- who hasn't dreamed of visiting the Yanbian Autonomous Korean Prefecture? It's an odd bit of China jammed between North Korea and Vladivostok, apparently as Korean as it is Chinese, and well known for its beautiful lakes and for its restaurants serving bosintang, dog-meat soup. Yanbian Restaurant, in the usual Koreatown mini-mall, specializes in the dishes of the region, including delicate Yanbian dumplings stuffed with greens, and grilled mountain vegetables of every description. There is an odd emphasis on seafood -- Yanbian is landlocked -- including great platters of grilled fish and exotica like braised sea hare, a giant sea slug more familiar from Discovery Channel videos than from menus. And here, without any fanfare, is your chance to eat bosintang, made with lamb instead of dog, of course, but presumably as close as you can get outside Asia, a superheated pot flavored with cumin, garlic and lots of chile, almost vibrating with the fragrance of bitter herbs. 4251 W. Third St.; (213) 383-5959.
Wrapped pork belly marinated in garlic and toasting with soju at Palsaik Samgyeopsal.
There's a lot of pork belly in Koreatown these days -- man, is there a lot of pork belly. Even if you've never tasted barbecued Korean pork belly, samgyeopsal, you've seen the happy pigs dancing around restaurant signs, the special domed grills in barbecue joints, and the woozy enthusiasts, lips shining with grease, celebrating pork belly's symbiosis with strong drink. Palsaik Samgyeopsal goes places like Toad House and Honey Pig one better by positioning pork belly as health food, which is a comforting thought as you watch strips of meat sizzle and dance on slanted metal griddles. The basic order features eight thick slices of belly, each saturated with a different marinade, presented in strict order of pungency. But even if you doubt the health benefits of the flavonoids in the miso pork belly or the carotene in the gochujang pork belly, so what? You're eating spicy pork belly with raw garlic and fresh herbs. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, happiness is an end in itself. 863 S. Western Ave.; (213) 365-1750.
Dongchimi gook soo
If you were going to compile a roster of Koreatown's greatest hits, it would be unthinkable to leave out the dongchimi gook soo at the barbecue-intensive Corner Place, a dish of chilled noodles in a sweet, cold and mysteriously refreshing broth, made with lightly pickled radish but long-rumored to include a healthy slug of 7Up. Will you be able to take it home and reverse-engineer the recipe? You will not. The restaurant's reluctance to allow takeout of the noodles is as famous as Nozawa's refusal to serve California rolls. As long as you're here, try the brisket. It goes nicely with the soup. 2819 James M. Wood Blvd.; (213) 487-0968.
We'd been to anju bars before, even some with better food, but Dan Sung Sa was our first real introduction to the Korean pub, a peek into an alternate universe of makkeoli, chain-smoking and open kitchens where aunties preside over rattling old cookpots. More than any restaurant in Los Angeles, it felt like someplace else. So we had mixed feelings when Dan Sung Sa modernized -- not the dark, graffiti-scarred interior, which was unchanged, or the teapots, which still looked as if they had been used for batting practice by Chan Ho Park. It may have been the website, which put the restaurant in the context of pojangmacha, Korean street pubs, usually crammed into orange tents. It may have been the newly translated menu -- we had spent many cheerful hours trying to figure out how to order the grilled pork ribs, the baby octopus, the seafood pancakes and the skewered dough-seaweed-rice noodle things that every Korean friend called dumbbells. Is this a pathetic attempt to assert that we were there before it was cool? Probably so. But we can still salvage what is left of our crumbling foodist cred by telling you that you should really try the spicy silkworm pupae in broth. Or actually, don't. Get the barbecued squid. 3317 W. Sixth St.; (213) 487-9100.
Sullongtang at Han Bat is a righteous soup; broth boiled for hours, days, until the liquid becomes pearlescent white. There is no fat. There is no funk. There is only the pure, mineral flavor of bones, ox reduced to essence. You add salt -- not too much! -- and a gentle quantity of green onion tops. You can get brisket or various cattle organs added to the soup, if that's your thing. I sometimes add a bit of chile paste to the soup, which tints it bright pink, but the act always feels like a felony. 4163 W. Fifth St.; (213) 383-9499.
Diners at Jae Bu Do wear a Michael Jackson-style white glove when grabbing the barbecued clams off the tabletop grill.
You may visit Jae Bu Do because of the single white glove you are given, which can make you feel like Michael Jackson for the length of a meal. Others go for the hagfish: primitive, eel-like creatures that writhe around one another on the grill like the serpents on Asclepius' staff. Hagfish smothered in chile sauce and wrapped in gaenip leaves are almost tolerable, but the best reason to eat them is that you have earned the right to brag about eating the slimiest creature in the sea. But Jae Bu Do, where your options are limited to combinations A , B or C, is where you go for a feast of barbecued clams, scattered raw onto a tabletop hot wire grill. Your job is to grab the hot clams at just the moment the shells pop open, tug out the meat and dip it in a bit of gochujang. The glove doesn't just look cool; it will spare you a great deal of pain. You will also get scallops, sea snails and prawns in the course of dinner, giant oysters and possibly even hagfish. But the clams will be what disappears first. And you will weep into your clam-stained glove. 474 N. Western Ave.; (323) 467-2900.
We've all had cold noodles. But the noodles at Yu Chun are the coldest of all: chewy, jet-black filaments, made from the root of the kudzu vine, in strong broth so cold that it rises from the bowl in airy snowdrifts of beefiness, as tart and sweet and chilled as a properly made cocktail. Yu Chun's 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. I know other naengmyon restaurants also bring out the hot soup -- sometimes they even leave a Thermos on the table -- but here, I like to think of the custom as the Koreatown equivalent of St. Bernards bringing hot toddies to stranded travelers in the Alps. 3185 W. Olympic Blvd.; (323) 382-3815.
Legendary Korean BBQ stalwart Soot Bull Jeep.
It is a wonder Soot Bull Jeep hasn't burned down by now, and Koreatown has grown into a metropolis around it, but I still look forward to that moment when the waitress shovels glowing hardwood coals into the tabletop pit, plunks down a greased wire screen and spreads out bulgogi, marinated short ribs, baby octopus, spicy pork, whatever, above the guttering flame. It will sizzle. It will meet scissors. You will smear a bit of meat with fermented bean sauce, you will wrap it in a lettuce leaf, and you will like it. When you emerge from the restaurant, the same fragrant fumes that give so much flavor to the meat will have done the same to your pants. Dress accordingly. 3136 W. Eighth St.; (213) 387-3865.
Marvelling at the bulgogi ssam at LaOn.
Before there was much of a Korean presence in the United States, when you were more likely to see Korean cooking on U.N. Day than you were in an actual restaurant, the emblematic dish was probably gujeolpan, a sectioned platter with crepes in the middle and finely slivered garnishes -- egg, meat, vegetables -- in fitted containers along the sides. It is gorgeous, a real classic of Joseon royal cookery. It is also the dullest thing you could ever hope to eat. LaOn, a small-plates restaurant from Jenni Park, who also owns Park's Barbecue and the pork restaurant Don Dae Gam, is probably the only modern restaurant in Koreatown. It is styled as a kind of Korean tapas bar, more Western than a traditional anju bar, but the best dishes tend to be Park's reimagining of the Joseon royal classics: yook hwe, grilled abalone, japchae and the egg-battered fish and vegetables called jeon. LaOn may have the crispest jeon in town. But Park's gujeolpan, with the number of ingredients brought down by two from the traditional nine and called a "seven wrap," may be the cleverest revamp of them all -- shreds of cucumber, carrot, stewed beef, simmered mushrooms and egg white and yolk served with lightly pickled daikon slices in place of the crepes, a gujeolpan that is fresh and crisp instead of stolid. 1145 S. Western Ave.; (213) 373-0700.
Yook hwe may be the simplest dish in the Korean repertoire, a basic salad of slightly frozen raw beef, slivered Korean pear and a little sesame oil. When done correctly, the mild crunch of the pear and the semi-frozen beef tend to rhyme. A lot of Korean cooking can be goosed with a shot of doenjang or raw garlic, but the success of yook hwe depends absolutely on the quality of its raw materials, more reliably found in a fancy restaurant than in a joint. MaDang 621 is the grandest restaurant Koreatown has ever known, a fortress of marble and glass anchoring a complex built into the footprint of the old Woo Lae Oak -- you can imagine it as the Korean equivalent of the Hollywood & Highland Center but based on a Korean costume epic instead of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. Inside, MaDang 621 soars like New York's Four Seasons -- severely modernist, barely softened with traditional Korean touches -- and it is one of the few dining rooms left in Los Angeles where the male customers tend to wear ties. So, the yook hwe: meat well marbled and hand-cut, pear properly crunchy, oil judiciously applied. 621 S. Western Ave.; (213) 384-2244.
Japchae is the stir-fried cellophane noodle dish that is as unavoidable in Korean meals as potato salad is at an Alabama picnic. Banchan a la Carte is more or less a gourmet takeout shop where you can pick up superior, home-fermented versions of sauces like ssamjang and gochujang; fresh kimchi; plastic containers of banchan for your own table (I especially like the marinated burdock); and prettily arranged party platters. There are also a few tables where you can eat in, mostly fusion-y dishes like pasta with cod roe and Korean jambalaya but also one of the few local japchaes, tossed with grilled vegetables and served for some reason over rice, which you might think of eating on its own. Slippery, warm and somehow both filling and light, the japchae is an ideal lunch. 141 N. Western Ave.; (323) 465-2400.
One good thing about Koreatown restaurants circa 2012? Bibimbap isn't awful any more. I mean, sometimes the dish, with rice mixed at the table with shredded vegetables, fiery-sweet gochujang and perhaps a fried egg, is imbalanced, but it's because the salted herbs are too chewy or the meat is too plentiful, not because the cook is cleaning out yesterday's salad bar onto your lunch. It has become a safe dish almost everywhere, and at home-style restaurants like Mapo and Seongbukdong, it verges on superb. But as always, at Jeon Ju, named after the spiritual home of the dish in South Korea, bibimbap is almost transcendent, the flavors of each mountain vegetable distinct yet melding into the whole, the snap of the chile paste as nuanced as good bourbon, and the different intensities of crunch becoming almost contrapuntal under the teeth. The variation called dol sot bibimbap is really the way to go, served in a volcanically hot stone pot that creates a crisp, slightly scorched crust and a subtly pervasive smokiness. Jeon Ju's bibimbap may be one of the few recorded instances where the intensely herbal vegan version is better than the one-dimensional version with barbecued meat. 2716 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 386-5678.
Chicken noodle soup
To understand Korean noodles without tasting gook soo is like trying to grok Italian noodles without ever having eaten spaghetti. Everything else is just commentary. And the gook soo you need to taste is at Olympic Noodle, where the thick, knife-cut pasta is fragile yet has tensile strength, bland yet wheaty, and ordinarily served in a pungent broth made from dried anchovies but possibly at its best in the context of a dense, milky chicken broth -- sliced noodle soup with chicken, or dak kal gook soo -- whose preparation flouts every rule of stock-making you ever learned from Jacques Pepin. The gook soo both will and will not remind you of Northern Chinese knife-cut noodles you may have had at San Gabriel places like Omar's. It will and will not remind you of Art's Deli. It is chicken noodle soup. It is served in bowls as large as utility sinks. It contains multitudes. Olympic Noodle also happens to have the only steamed mandoo, dumplings, you really need to know about, and its kimchi is fetishized by Koreatown OGs. 4008 W. Olympic Blvd.; (323) 931-0007.
Kong gook soo
Is there an unusual number of cold noodles in Koreatown? Very well, there's an unusual number of cold noodles. You need some way of cooling down in the summer when your grandmother believes that, if you fall asleep with the fan on, you die. Also, cold noodles are delicious. We have talked about gook soo. Now we are talking about Ma Dang Gook Soo's kong gook soo, the same knife-cut noodles bathed in fresh soy milk, sprinkled with cucumber slivers and scented with a few drops of sesame oil. Bring on August. We're ready. 869 S. Western Ave.; (213) 487-6008.
Tonkatsu or donkasu? This is the latter, a Korean pork dish at Wako Donkasu. The former is similar, but Japanese.
Tonkatsu, fried pork, is distinctly a Japanese dish, or at least Portuguese as filtered by Japan. What Wako Donkasu serves is definitely crunchy Japanese tonkatsu but with an almost inexplicable Korean edge. The restaurant may have borrowed the name of the most famous tonkatsu chain in Tokyo, and its food may be fitted into compartmentalized wooden boxes, but the place's vibe, the brusque cheerfulness and big portions are pretty much what you'd find at a Japanese restaurant in Seoul -- the pork cutlet is the size and shape of a deep-fried Zagat guide. The best moment here? Grinding toasted sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle as soon as you are seated, ostensibly to flavor the sweet donkasu sauce but also as a first course that is merely a perfume, a promise of the food to come. 2904 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 387-9256.
"If you haven't had Soban's ganjang gaejang," a Yelp princess told me not long ago, "you really have no business talking about Koreatown.'' Soban is one of the new breed of chef-owned dinner houses, slightly old-fashioned and not inexpensive, which choose to do a few dishes really well rather than supporting a giant menu. If you have eaten extensively in Koreatown, you have undoubtedly run into ganjang gaejang, raw marinated crab, as a giveaway in an assortment of banchan -- there's a swell one at Don Dae Gam. At Soban, a homely place best known for its spicy simmered short ribs and its squid salad, ganjang gaejang, at the princely price of $29.95, is a major commitment. Two neatly bisected blue crabs on a platter are transformed by what seems to be a clean, soy-tinged distillation of the animal's own juices, mellow yet crabbier than the crab itself. When you suck at a leg, the flesh pulls cleanly out from the shell, firm but not cooked, briny and sweet, and nearly glazed with big clumps of roe. You can eat well here even if raw crab doesn't happen to be your thing. The presentation of banchan is remarkable -- there are usually at least 15 small dishes -- and the spicy galbi jjim, the ubiquitous braised short-rib preparation, is just stunning, as weightless and as caramelized as an effort by a Michelin-starred chef. 4001 W. Olympic Blvd.; (323) 936-9106.
Is eundagu jorim the default Tuesday-night dinner in Seoul? Because the spicy, black-cod casserole is pretty much everywhere around here, even in restaurants specializing in barbecue or bibimbap, and even though the price in the local markets, last time I checked, was more than $20 a pound. Jun Won is another one of the old-fashioned, home-style restaurants -- the owner also runs what is considered to be the best banchan deli in town -- and although the specialties are ostensibly pollack casserole and vivid-red steamed belt fish, I have never been able to get past the simmered black cod ("steamed black cod" on the menu): a little spicy and meltingly sweet, riding a baseball-size hunk of radish that has been braised to utter, utter submission. 3100 W. 8th St.; (213) 383-8855.
Galbi jjim, yes, galbi jjim. Everyone knows you go to Seongbukdong for galbi jjim. It's on every table nearly, set out in little pots -- steamed short ribs, barely touched with sweetness, which breathe the essence of good meat and time. At $25.99 or so, it is by far the most expensive thing on the menu, and you probably should get two, because it vanishes more quickly than pistachio nuts. The last time I was in, the braised mackerel may have been the single best bit of seafood I have ever tasted in Koreatown, cooked in a way that accentuated its fishiness instead of quieting it, turning the oily pungency of the flesh almost into a condiment, a self-generated garum. The transformation of the mackerel was the fishy equivalent of grapes turned into wine. Breathtaking. 3303 W. Eighth St.; (213) 738-8977.
Until I actually tasted the stuff, I half-believed that budae jjigae was an urban legend, a traditional Korean stew enriched with Spam and hot dogs and instant ramen cadged from American army bases, sometimes enriched with canned sausages and glops of American cheese. Budae jjigae, sometimes called military stew, or Johnson tang in honor of LBJ, is a culinary souvenir of the hard years after the Korean War. But the stew is a hit in Koreatown, as well as Seoul, a cheap staple of soju bars, where the hot, orange goo has legendary absorptive qualities. At Chunju Han-il Kwan, you can more or less believe it is delicious, enriched with feathery green chrysanthemum leaves, and fortified with chiles to a point where you almost can't taste the Spam. 3450 W. Sixth St.; (213) 480-1799.
Grilled pork neck
Don Dae Gam, owned by the Park's BBQ people, is less Seoul high-tech than post-Ikea chic; its menu is weighted toward combination barbecue dinners, meant to be shared by three or four, inexpensive enough to feed hungry college students. Beer, a pot of kimchi stew and various enhancements are included in the price -- one night there was a generous platter of what seemed like broiled tripas de leche, the top of the small intestine of an unweaned calf, the half-digested milk still inside. But it's mostly about the pig and the grill here: four kinds of pork belly, two kinds of pork ribs and a stray slab of beef brisket, which under the circumstances is probably meant as honorary pork. When you burn out on pork belly -- is it possible to burn out on pork belly? -- try the delicate, fat-ribboned slices of pork neck instead. 1145 S. Western Ave.; (323) 373-0700.
Savoring a bowl at Park's BBQ, a branch of the Seoul K-pop hangout.
Park Dae Gam, better known as Park's BBQ, is the ultramodern palace of high-end meats that changed the game in Koreatown, the restaurant that managed to put the fragrance of hardwood charcoal into the meat and not into your hair, established superprime Wagyu beef as its standard grade and introduced the pork known as Tokyo X, a lean, dense pig from a special hybrid breed whose bellies have the springy presence of fresh pasta. Park's, a branch of a Seoul restaurant known for its clientele of pop stars and movie directors, is the most expensive barbecue place in Koreatown by a not insignificant amount, but it is still almost impossible to get into on a balmy Saturday night. (Ironically, Park's success may have been indirectly responsible for the surge of supercheap, kind-of-mediocre Korean barbecue joints in the last couple of years -- with the top and middle established, the bottom was the only niche left to fill.) When you decide that you've moved beyond the maximal aesthetic of all-you-can-eat, you may want to celebrate here with an order of USDA Prime ggot sal, rib-eye steak, on the grill. If you're spending more money on less meat, ggot sal is the way to go. 955 S. Vermont Ave.; (213) 380-1717.
You've been to sushi bars; you know the drill. You murmur the word omakase, you settle back with a beaker of daiginjo, and you submit to the exquisite ministrations of the chef. Forget what you know about sashimi when you walk into a Koreatown live-seafood restaurant. Because while the raw materials are more or less the same, and there are judgmental men with sharp knives involved, the rules are not the same. In sushi bars, you experience a sequence of fish whose order and preparations are orchestrated by the chef. In Koreatown, at, say, Wassada, you experience one fish, usually a live halibut: lifted from a tank, dispatched and sliced into wisp-thin sashimi -- a lot of sashimi. Do you delicately dip one corner of a halibut filet into soy sauce? You could, although it's more likely that you'll smear the fish with Wassada's astonishingly good bean paste, ssam jang, then wrap it in a gaenip leaf with a clove of raw garlic. And while you may be exploring the nuances of one fish rather than the contours of many, the side dishes never stop coming: sliced abalone in its shell, an entire box of sea urchin, oysters, abalone porridge, spicy fish soup, broiled fish head, fish-roe salad, slabs of monkfish liver -- basically an entire Jacques Cousteau special laid out on
a big table, randy sea squirts and all. 377 N. Western Ave.; (323) 464-3006.
Feminist theory often refers to what has been called the male gaze. And if the male gaze were to be focused on a foodstuff instead of Megan Fox, it might well be buldak, fire chicken, the consumption of which is at least as much a masculine ritual as an Adam Sandler movie or mixed martial arts. If a dinner of buldak doesn't put you on the floor, sweating profusely and gasping for breath, then it hasn't been doing its job. The preparation is simple enough: It is marinated chicken, sautéed in a spicy, garlicky sauce. The machismo lies in the level of heat, which can be raised to paralyzing levels. The last time I was in Korean Chicken Place, the owner initially refused to serve me buldak; after he agreed, employees came by the table every couple of minutes to make sure that the occasional yowls were not indications of actual physical distress, though I often looked as if I had been tear-gassed by an overenthusiastic officer of the law. After dinner, on my way out of the restaurant patio, the waitress touched my arm and admitted that the cook had taken the heat level up to three. The next time I visited, she promised, they would crank it up to four. 618 S. Serrano Ave.; (213) 388-6990.
Employees Kyeong-Hwa and Jinwoo serving up crispy goodness at Kyochon.
Korean fried chicken really is an evolutionary leap forward -- marinated in a cabinet full of spices, saturated with garlic, double-fried to a shattering, thin-skinned snap. It is not accidental that the streets of Koreatown sometimes seem to be paved with golden chicken skin. At Kyochon, the first of the Korean chicken joints, the chicken is cooked to order, so even a simple takeout box can take an eternity to prepare, and the only real appetizer is a dish of marinated daikon cubes. But then the chicken comes out, hacked into tiny, random pieces, all garlic and juice, heat and crunch. Satori that squawks like a bird. 3833 W. Sixth St.; (213) 739-9292.
Soondae, Korean blood sausage, has always had its place in Koreatown. It's good stuff -- thin hog casings stuffed with a restrained, mildly seasoned pudding of ox gore laced with transparent noodles. Soondae can be fried into a sort of crisp scrapple or served boiled in soup; steamed or cut into chunks and stir-fried with chile paste and vegetables. But Koreatown is going through its soondae moment -- there are a dozen specialists now, and a hundred other kitchens with reputable versions. At Eighth Street Soondae, one of the oldest and most respected of L.A.'s soondae parlors, the blood sausage is treated less as a racy snack than as a necessity of civilized life, in a thoroughly bourgeois dining room where the street-level snack is consumed with aplomb and plenty of napkins. 2703 W. Eighth St.; (213) 487-0038.
Clay pot duck
Dha Rae Ok may be the most worn-looking barbecue place on Western: veneers rubbed to the wood beneath, cases of beer piled against the wall in a dining room. On one visit, the flat-screen TVs on the walls were showing a video demonstrating intestinal polyp-removal surgery, which may be the single most disturbing thing I have ever seen in a restaurant. The galbi may be great; I've never tried it. But if you call four hours in advance and reserve, as discovered by Scoops Westside proprietor Matt Kang, there is also clay pot duck, prepared in a special oven. The duck appears at table, wrapped in a charred bandage of cloth. When the cloth is unrolled, the duck itself is pale. A chewy stuffing of purple rice cooked with beans and aromatics spills out of its interior; the powerful scent of Korean herbs inhabits every molecule of the flesh. It is soft enough to eat with a spoon. Spectacular. 1106 S. Western Ave.; (323) 733-2474.
Everybody knows the best sujebi, hand-torn flake noodles, in town. They're the ones that the waitress flings into your soup at the crab restaurant Ondal 2, right after you have plucked the last clump of back fin from the pot of boiling broth. And those sujebi do taste good, having soaked up the broth and all, although their texture sometimes is uncomfortably close to wadded white bread. Which brings us to the chewy, stretchy sujebi at MaPo Kkak Doo Gee, which are served in a plain yet delicious anchovy broth: just right. The restaurant, a high-quality neighborhood café named for its signature radish pickle, is also a great place to go for simmered black cod, spicy beef soup with leeks, and bibimbap. 3611 W. Sixth St.; (213) 736-6668.
After several years and many gallons of soju devoted to the subject, I have determined that my favorite Korean dish is almost certainly bossam, a combination plate of steamed pork belly, raw oysters, special kimchi, raw garlic and a salty condiment that looks as if it's made by fermenting Sea Monkeys, all of which you wrap into a sort of cabbage-leaf taco. If you should find yourself thirsty and in need of a pork belly, you may as well hit up the Koreatown bossam specialist Kobawoo, a polished destination restaurant with some of the best food in Koreatown. The house bossam is an elegant preparation that, like so many other Korean dishes, seems almost custom-designed to ease down a bottle of soju. One caveat: It will seem tempting to order the King Bossam platter, because, you know, you're the man. But don't. It won't get you any more pork belly, but it will get you piles of steamed stingray and boiled pig's foot that you probably don't want. 698 S. Vermont Ave., (213) 389-7300.
The gestation for this guide probably began 18 months ago when I ran across Jangchung-Dong Wong, a jokbal restaurant jammed into a corner of yet another minimall. If the Koreatown restaurant scene was developed enough to support not just a restaurant specializing in boiled pig's feet but a crowded restaurant specializing in boiled pig's feet, there was still a lot to be explored. And while we have had our share of nasty boiled pig's feet, the jokbal platter at Jangchung-Dong Wong is just fantastic, slices of soft, gently simmered shank arranged over a mound of disassembled trotter. If you swapped out the banchan and the salted-shrimp dipping sauce, you can imagine meeting this jokbal on the table of the London offal restaurant St. John. 425 S. Western Ave., (213) 386-3535.
Su jung Gwa
It's not just that Hwa Sun Ji is the most serene corner of Koreatown. It's that it often seems as if Hwa Sun Ji is the only serene corner of Koreatown, a teahouse with low, traditional Korean tables if you're into that, rustic straw mats on the walls and a long menu of teas and herbal tisanes, each accompanied by a list of their health-promoting attributes. If you get a cup of, say, the aged green tea boi cha, you can spend an entire afternoon there, the hot water replenished every few minutes without you having to ask. Su jung gwa is what is often translated as Korean Punch, a cold, sweet drink made with dried persimmon and lots of cinnamon. You've undoubtedly been served a little cup of it as a dessert after a Korean meal. But the complex, tart-sweet beauty of su jung gwa really comes out at Hwa Sun Ji, the slightly syrupy quality, the subtle resinous smack of the pine nuts floating in your tiny cup. The teahouse is also famous for its restrained version of pat-bingsu, the Korean shaved-ice dessert that somehow evolved into Pinkberry. 3960 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 382-5302.
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