Korean Comfort Food
Gook Soo is more than just a noodle
Tokyo has its share of noodle shops; so do, one must concede, Taipei, Singapore and Seoul. But Los Angeles may have a bigger variety of Asian noodles than any city in the world, bowls of pho and skeins of soba, hand-pulled mein and hand-pulled udon, Filipino mami and Polynesian long rice, Malaysian laksa and Sumatran bakmi, noodles from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka . . . from practically every noodle-eating culture this side of Bhutan.
Not least among these are the many noodles of Korea, which range from delicately herb-scented North Korean noodles to the robustly chewy potato-starch noodles that dwell at the bottom of funky bowls of cold organ-meat broth, from pencil-size rice noodles sauteed in chile paste to the extremely Korean version of hand-thrown chachiangmein. Korea is as much a noodle culture as Vietnam (the latest Korean craze, it seems, is Vietnamese noodles; a dozen or so brand-new pho parlors, all serving sort of a B-minus version of the ubiquitous Vietnamese beef-noodle soup, suddenly popped up last year in Koreatown).
I have eaten hundreds of bowls of Korean noodles over the years. But until I stumbled into Ma Dang Gook Soo a couple of months ago, a Korean noodle shop tucked into a corner of a big Koreatown mall, I had never tasted what are probably the signature noodles of Korea, the thin, hand-cut, wheaten noodles known as gook soo. To understand Korean food without having had a bowl of gook soo is almost like trying to understand the concept behind Italian pasta without ever having tasted spaghetti. It is the ultimate Korean comfort food: Everything else is just a noodle.
Ma Dang is a homey place, a tiny bit of Korean countryside fitted into the most urban context imaginable, next to a soontofu place and facing out, past an iron security fence, onto churning Western Avenue. The walls are lined with rustic rice-paper screens, like the Korean equivalent of Japanese shoji, and are hung with mural-size photographs of a muddy Korean village that seems largely populated by chickens. The thump-thump of noodle making echoes from the kitchen. A long line of people curls past some wooden benches outside the door of the restaurant, and eventually a waitress comes out to take your order, which will be ready -- along with a few different kinds of kimchi and a cup of barley tea -- almost as soon as you sit down.
There is a decent sort of bibimbap at Ma Dang, mounds of simmered ”mountain vegetable,“ bean sprouts and greens topped with a runny fried egg, and vegetarian sushi -- the establishment is liberal enough in its definition of ”vegetable“ to include a little sliver of hot dog in the roll. You can get most of the common kinds of Korean noodle here too, elastic potato-starch noodles in chile paste, sweet rice-cake noodles, noodles made from mung beans and noodles made from buckwheat. The unusually delicate steamed mandoo, Korean dumplings, are delicious. But mostly there is gook soo.
Gook soo, especially as interpreted here, is a marvelous thing, flat and slightly stretchy, about the size of fettuccine but more fragile somehow, knife-cut from a thin sheet of rolled dough. The basic gook soo here -- identified on the menu as ”handmade noodle“ -- is served in a broth based on dried anchovies, clear and slightly earthy, garnished with seaweed, kimchi or bits of meat, concealing a few chunks of boiled potato, and adding a presence, a depth, to the noodles, which seem almost to melt into it. (Chicken gook soo is bathed instead in a thick, white chicken broth, whose body -- like that of Korean beef soup -- seems enriched with the milky meat proteins that Western cooks tend to filter out.) You can eat the gook soo as is, or spike it with the restaurant‘s marvelous chile-scallion condiment.
A Korean friend practically collapsed with nostalgic longing when she tasted Ma Dang’s cold gook soo bathed in fresh soy milk, embellished with julienne cucumber, a few drops of sesame oil and very little else: the most refreshing hot-weather food imaginable.
Dessert, as always, consists of a stick of Korean chewing gum.
869 S. Western Ave.; (213) 487-6008. Open daily 8 a.m.--10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12--$15. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: handmade noodles, soybean handmade noodles, steamed dumplings, elastic spicy noodles.
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