The origins of French cuisine have been well-rehearsed, and much has been written about the love of chiles as an endorphic response to both oppressive tropical heat and oppressive Himalayan cold. So somebody, somewhere must be completing a massive work of scholarship on the vast numbers of Korean dishes designed as hangover palliatives, because at times it seems as if half the cuisine’s repertory revolves around hangover cures, salves for the vicious effects of soju, whiskey or the chunky rice wine makkoli. In Mexico, there’s menudo. In Korea, the list is as long as your arm.
Sullongtang, the famous, milky soup of long-boiled beef bones, is a soothing remedy, and so, oddly enough, is spicy, thick beef broth enriched with cabbage leaves and little clots of gore. Soontofu, the dish of freshly made tofu served sputtering in a superheated iron pot, is ideal for mornings after, as is gamjatang, a brick-red stew made with pork neck, chiles and potatoes, and soondaetang, a soup of blood sausage and extremely miscellaneous cattle parts. Spicy fish soup has many culinary possibilities, but if you’re eating it after the bars close on a Friday night, it is probably not because all the bouillabaisse joints are closed.
But first among the hangover chasers, the dish you want to have between you and the roiling chasm of your melting insides, is jeonbokjuk, Korean abalone porridge, a simple, fortifying gruel of rice, water and as much abalone as you can afford, bland as a Josh Groban album and only slightly more nutritious. Is there seasoning? A little sesame oil if you’re lucky; perhaps a bit of seaweed, disguised so that its greenness need not offend your already assaulted senses. When jeonbokjuk is appropriate, and too often it is, it can be the only thing that stands before your exploding brainpan and the abyss.
Mountain is probably the first porridge depot Koreatown devotees will point you to, a meager, barely marked storefront in a perpetually overpacked minimall with a few worn tables, some wooden chairs that seem about a week and a half from collapse, and a stack of Korean papers. Mountain is not the least odiferous of dives — there is a permanent, if appropriate funk of kimchi and boiled animal — and it is occasionally difficult to secure a seat. It’s loud. English is not the first language of the restaurant, to put it mildly; the mounted wall menu, which lists things like “soup made from the bones of the four legs of an ox” can be fairly incomprehensible, even if you have a pretty good idea of what you want to eat.
The samgyetang, a strong chicken soup with a whole, rice-stuffed game hen floating in it like a winged matzoh ball, is delicious, probably one of the top-five versions in Koreatown, a bit light on the pricey ginseng but otherwise exactly what you want to be facing after midnight. It’s not a dumpling specialty restaurant but the steamed mandoo are pretty good; the kimchi stew lacks the force-10 tang of the best versions of the dish, but when you’re in the mood, its hominess makes up for its timidity. As at all porridge restaurants, the panchan, small dishes that accompany the meal, include jangjorim, a bowl of butter-soft beef simmered with soy and sliced chiles.
Whatever time of day you end up at Mountain, almost everybody in the restaurant is eating jeonbokjuk, that abalone porridge, rice cooked almost until it dissolves, a little runny, decorated with a raw egg yolk that shines from the oblong bowl like the sun of a new day. Mountain is not particularly generous with its abalone — at $7.85 a portion, it could scarcely afford to be — and in fact you would probably have to hunt around a bit to find even a discernible chunk of the shellfish. If I were pressed, I might even describe the abalone as a homeopathic dose, low enough to send the sympathetic circuits of your body vibrating in an abalone-like frequency. Still, Mountain is run by crew of Korean grandmothers who cluck sympathetically even at 4 a.m., plus its 24/7 schedule is ideal, like an all-night pharmacy. And the porridge seems to work.
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Bon Juk is the fanciest porridge place in Koreatown, a branch of a large Korea-based chain on the first floor of a Wilshire Boulevard office building. Bon Juk strives for blandness. The low, well-padded chairs are like what you would find in a well-appointed bank lobby, and you will find harder-edged music in most elevators. The walls are dominated by huge photographic blowups of the various kinds of porridge on offer, along with descriptions of their nutritive virtues. Black sesame porridge? Healthy as hell. Pumpkin porridge with glutinous rice dumplings? Sweet, gentle, utterly calming, although it is a dish that makes its point in the very first bite. Azuki-bean porridge? Don’t face the winter solstice without it. There is porridge flavored with smoked salmon, like a Korean kedgerie, and a porridge with kimchi and octopus, a vegetable porridge, and a kind of samgyetang porridge with chicken and plenty of ginseng. Here too, jangjorim appears with the kimchi, although Bon Juk’s version is harder, a little stringier, than Mountain’s.
Bon Juk also specializes in jeonbokjuk, which comes out more like a loose risotto than like gruel here, spiked with hard, chewy, black-edged bits of abalone, and somehow both more intense and blander than its equivalent a few blocks south. How do you choose between the cheaper version of the dish and the one that costs $29.95? “You pay twice as much,” says the waitress, “but you get three times the abalone.”
Bon Juk: 3551 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (213) 380-2248. Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. MC, V. Porridge, $8.95-$29.95.
Mountain: 3064 8th St., L.A., (213) 487-7615. Open daily, 24 hours. No alcohol. Takeout. MC, V. Porridge, $7.95.