Olympic Cheonggukjang: Bean and Nothingness
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Olympic Cheonggukjang: Korean Soul Food That Will Take Your Breath Away."
If you are the kind of person whose friends insist on telling you about the Real Korean Food, you probably have heard about Olympic Cheonggukjang more times than you can count. It's a cramped dining room on the wrong end of Koreatown, nose-to-elbow at lunchtime. If you try to look up the restaurant online, you may find it listed as Olympic Restaurant, Olympic Cheonggukjang or Olympic Fermented Soy Bean Soup, although you may well end up at Olympic Noodle a mile west, which is unrelated, I think. If you arrive at the right address, the restaurant, whose sign is untranslated, is still pretty hard to find, although you should be able to spot it by the contingent of elderly men in suits clustered outside.
You should also be able to find the restaurant if you inhale deeply: Olympic Cheonggukjang specializes, reasonably enough, in cheonggukjang, a thick soup made with the fermented Korean bean paste also called cheonggukjang, whose aroma has been compared to ripe French cheeses, unwashed jockstraps and the city of Vernon, Calif., but has a special eye-watering tang of its own.
Cheonggukjang is more or less the Korean equivalent of Japanese natto, another chunky soy product enjoyed mostly by people who have been eating it since infancy, but which has a piquancy that even connoisseurs of durian and Taiwanese stinky tofu may think is slightly over the top. Cheonggukjang is aggravated soybean assault.
There is a reason the friends who told you about this place never quite got around to taking you there. There may be a reason that the women who run the restaurant usually make you order while you wait for a table outside. Once the cheonggukjang is in your lungs, you may be thinking more about survival than you are about lunch.
First there are the banchan, the array of small dishes that accompany a proper Korean meal, which are modest but obviously fresh and homemade: cabbage kimchi, radish kimchi, really delicious cucumbers with chile and, if you're lucky, a dish of fresh chiles with candied dry anchovies.
Accounts of the restaurant always include a description of the roasted seaweed sheets, skewered on a toothpick, which seem unprepossessing until you realize that it may be the best roasted seaweed you've ever tasted, salty, sweet and tasting of the sea, with a crunch that melts away like a snowflake on your tongue — like Japanese nori transformed by a dream.
The restaurant, like a Korean bistro, is pretty famous in the community for its elevated versions of home cooking, the Tuesday-night dishes your mother may not be around to cook for you when you're away from home. There is a spicy galbi jjim, gently braised short ribs in a bright, slightly sweet sauce thickened with ground dried chiles, that is probably tender enough to eat with a spoon, although you will be provided with a pair of scissors with which to snip it from the bone. I also like the samgyetang, a classic cold-weather preparation of boiled game hen stuffed with sticky rice and ginseng roots. Most of the tables will sport at least one portion of fried corvina, a strong, whole fish overcooked to an appealing crispness.
The most popular dish here may be the pork bulgogi, sweet slivers of marinated meat grilled with onions sizzling on a platter of superheated iron. You make little tacos with the pork, smearing a slice or two with yellow bean paste, popping in a bit of raw garlic and rolling it up in a leaf of fresh lettuce. The dish actually won an award for the best pork dish at a Korean barbecue contest I helped judge last year, which I didn't realize until I saw the framed certificate on the wall. You probably will be brought a double order of the bulgogi or the galbi jjim — they are meant to be shared by two people — but you probably won't have leftovers in either case. Olympic is a solid place for lunch.
You may have thought you avoided the cheonggukjang. Nobody announced its arrival, and a waitress may have shaken her head when you tried to order it. No non-Korean can possibly eat that soup, she may have told you. It is deep culture. Yet there it is, in the middle of the table, seething and roiling in a heated black bowl, the occasional mephitic bubble breaking the surface like gas at the La Brea Tar Pits, slippery whole beans bobbing alongside herbs and cubes of tofu. It is your own private fumarole: crimson, smoking and alive.
You could ignore it if you want. Many do. But you take your metal spoon, and you plunge it into the beast, and you gulp the thick fluid as quickly as you may have your first shot of whiskey, and you have another bite and then maybe a third.
The cliché with such foods is that the smell is more fearsome than the taste, that once you have fought through the impulse to toss the fermented bamboo or sataw bean or bit of Époisses out the window, the food will be mild and sweet. Cheonggukjang, which does have a lovely, nutty flavor, a little like toasted barley, isn't like that. Because after that third bite, and maybe after the second, it takes over your body like a mischievous animist spirit, settling in your heart and your lungs, distorting your vision, making it impossible to concentrate on anything but this presence bubbling up from your skin. This isn't food you should maybe avoid when you're going back to the office; this is food that demands you block out a weekend, because it is going to be controlling you for several hours to come.
OLYMPIC CHEONGGUKJANG | 2528 W. Olympic Blvd., #104, L.A. | (213) 480-1107 | Open Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, about $25. Recommended dishes: cheonggukjang; spicy galbi jjim; pork bulgogi.
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