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.
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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.