Last we checked in on the strip malls of Koreatown, there were unfortunately named pizza places, spicy fried chicken wings and a Thai spot with a bus parked inside. This time, we've headed south of Wilshire to a strip mall brimming with fresh fish, ramen and perhaps the shadiest dining establishment that's ever been Strip Mall Ratted on.
Just north of the intersection at Western and Eighth, where Pollo a La Brasa spits Peruvian fire onto its roast chickens, there's a strip mall where live fish swim precariously close to your table. It is a strip mall where a man from Bangladesh makes Japanese ramen, and where a corner storefront has been serving only one dish, seven hours a day, for 17 years. This is what the strip mall life is like in Koreatown.
As we've seen before, ramen and strip malls seem to work well together. The warm, satisfying homeyness of ramen fits the dark, low-slung aesthetics of most strip malls perfectly, and Isa Ramen is no exception. The space is mostly wood-paneled, with a small run of bar seats if things get really crowded. Otherwise, pull up a table in the side room, under the faded Japanese movie posters and large color photos of the food on offer. There are curries and sushi rolls, a few fried appetizers and the namesake Isa ramen, among eight or nine other variations on the dish.
The hearty, brothy noodle bowls here are regionally specific, with a Tokyo pork and bonito ramen, a miso Sapporo version, and fatty Hakata ramen available. The Isa ramen is a personal mix from the owner, Isa Moinuddin, a Bangladeshi transplant who emigrated to Japan at a young age and has sought to re-create the flavors he found there. His personal ramen arrives in a thin chicken broth, which lacks the density of other ramen options around town but won't leave you soggy after lunch. Speaking of which, the lunch specials at Isa Ramen will set you back less than $10, and come with a full portion of ramen, a side salad and sticky California roll. That's a good deal in any culture. Isa Ramen is open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and accepts credit cards, with a $1 surcharge for anything below $10.740 S. Western Ave., Ste. 116, Koreatown; 213-382-9020.
Across the parking lot, you'll find Hwal Uh Kwang Jang, a popular Korean fresh fish restaurant. Here, they focus mainly on hwe dup bap, which is basically a giant salad with a mound of fresh fish on top and some rice with which to finish things off. It's a dish that can get you into trouble if you're not careful, considering the amount of uncooked fish riding above the lettuce. And, as Midtown Lunch pointed out back in 2011, the words "cheap" and "raw fish" don't tend to turn out well.
Thankfully, Hwal Uh Kwang Jang's $6.99 lunch
Asian bakeries are some of the best. There's always an assortment of sticky, sweet breads, stuffed buns, cookies and odd fruit cakes. Plus, mostly everything is cheap, unless you get into the full-on cakes. But then if you're eating a full cake for lunch, it's time to reconsider some life choices.
At Manna Bakery on the southern corner of the strip mall, it's all about the pastries. There are a couple of tables pushed against the window if you want to sit around and enjoy your haul, but don't expect to be very comfortable. The Korean bean paste pastries are the thing to get at Manna, although the straightforward breads are nothing to scoff at either. Manna Bakery accepts credit cards and is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. 740 S. Western Ave., Ste. #117, Koreatown; 213-389-8233.
Even if you're specifically looking for Han Kook Soondae, you may miss it. This corner spot is hidden in plain sight, with little signage (even in Korean) to give away the location. You could actually take three full steps into the restaurant and not have any idea you've arrived, given the spare single room that makes up the entire establishment.
Han Kook is a small place with a small but appreciated vision: Serve the best soondae. For the uninitiated, soondae is a Korean specialty that combines the textures of sausage, sticky rice and congealed blood all in one chewy casing. That's all you'll find at Han Kook Soondae: the same soondae they've been making for 17 years. You can get it sliced and laid out on a plate for just over $10, or go for the smaller portion with a side of thin intestine soup, known as soondae guk, for about $10. That way, at least you get to chew on some other stuff -- tripe, heart, lungs -- although the matching rubbery textures may not offer much of a respite from the original soondae. Best yet, toss in all the assorted chiles and other accoutrements with your blood sausage and cabbage soup for a spicy good time, then wait patiently for the owner to come around with cool, damp napkins to help cool you down. You're going to need it. Han Kook Soondae is open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and is cash only. 730 S. Western Ave., Ste. #111, Koreatown; 213-380-0020.
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