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Soup Opera

Good to the bone: Owner-chef Bae Yeon Jung soaks marrow overnight to add to the house specialty, so-mu-ri gook bab. (Photos by Anne Fishbein)

Even if you have never heard of Bae Yeon Jung, an hour or so at her BYJ Restaurant may make you as familiar with the former Korean sitcom star as any veteran couch potato in Seoul. Her portrait, eyebrows raised, head cocked in a pose that sold a million fan magazines in Korea, dominates the cute cartoon pigs and squids that otherwise blanket the façade of the mini-mall restaurant, and the same glamour shot twinkles serenely above the dining room. A wall of signed photographs featuring her stands to the right of the kitchen, the distinctive beauty mark on the bridge of her nose flashing in multiples across the room. To somebody unfamiliar with Korean television, it is hard to tell whether she is posing with celebrities or is actually the celebrity in question; I’m guessing some mixture of both. First-time customers occasionally squint in surprise when they walk in, the way that you might if you stumbled into a restaurant in Seoul that just happened to be owned by Suzanne Pleshette.

The fame of Bae Yeon Jung may not extend much beyond the Korean diaspora. Even my younger Korean friends tend to think I am referring to dreamboat Winter Sonata star Bae Yong-Jun when I mention the name. But inside her restaurant, through which she floats like a Saks-clad goddess among her uniformed employees, she is the biggest star in the universe, and her presence dominates the room.

“Do you like lemon?” she breathes.

Before you can formulate an answer, she has swept to the kitchen, then back with an example the size of a baseball. From the table she picks up the discarded cap of your bottle of chilled soju, low-proof Korean vodka, twists the sharp metal edges around the nipple of the fruit, and neatly extracts a quarter-size disk of peel. She reaches for a metal chopstick and stabs into the lemon once, twice, a dozen times. By the time she pours a teaspoonful of juice into your chilled jigger, you may be thinking that BYJ is the greatest restaurant in Koreatown, even before you have tasted a single bite of food: fried slivers of dried fish, slippery pancakes of oysters and egg, chicken stewed with chile and potatoes, or a soup made with a special, 3-year-old kimchi that the restaurant imports from Korea.

BYJ is a clean place, slick and bright as a franchise restaurant, washed with what sounds like vintage Korean synthpop and populated with Korean couples lunching on the eternal combination of soup, rice and banchan, pre-meal appetizers that usually include kimchi, marinated daikon, and a motley assortment of fish cake, scented bean sprouts and greens.

Like many businesses in Koreatown, BYJ is essentially a one-dish restaurant, in this case a shrine to a home-style family recipe for so-mu-ri gook bab. The clay bowls of a pale, milky, beef-bone soup enriched with marrow and garnished with thinly sliced beef are among the most soothing things you may ever taste: a genteel, protein-rich brew that in its purest form can quiet even a stomach roiled by 3-year-old kimchi. (So-mu-ri gook bab is not dissimilar to an elegant version of sullongtang, another pale beef soup you may have tasted elsewhere in Koreatown.) You can season the so-mu-ri gook bab with a bit of sea salt, or add a dab of chile paste or a leaf or two of kimchi if you are so inclined. The soup is as bland as oatmeal before you mix in the additives — it is popular at breakfast here.

But the most exciting dish at the restaurant is probably the osam bulgogi, an unusual dish of squid tentacles stir-fried with vegetables, soft cylindrical rice cakes and squares of Korean bacon, tinted a violent scarlet with a dose of dried-chile paste, served bubbling and spitting on a superheated stone platter. This is apparently the dish that the pigs and squids are celebrating on the restaurant’s façade, hogs and cephalopods frolicking like fast friends in the barnyard.

BYJ Restaurant, 1144 S. Western Ave., Suite 108, Koreatown, (323) 732-5900. Open daily 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Beer and soju. Lot parking. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $18–$35. Recommended dishes: so-mu-ri gook bab, osam bulgogi.


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