You don’t go to a Korean restaurant to eat spring rolls — unless it’s Shabu Hyang, where do-it-yourself versions accompany your shabu shabu (meat, mostly beef, boiled in broth) and a couple of barbecue items.
The kitchen at the Vietnamese-Korean fusion restaurant doesn’t send out these rolls ready-made. It’s your job to assemble them, stuffing rice papers with meat, veggies, sprouts and pineapple. The sauces aren’t the usual red-chili gochujang, either, but fish sauce infused with pineapple, onion and jalapeños; miso darkened with caramel; and sweet chile sauce with jalapeños.
Korean-Vietnamese fusion is already entrenched in Korea, where there are more than 200 Shabu Hyangs. Koreatown’s, which opened in November, is the first in the United States, replacing barbecue restaurant Star King on Wilshire Boulevard at Western. The room has been redone with a communal counter that runs through the center and soft blue padding backing the benches that line the walls. The effect is contemporary and calm.
The trickiest part of the DIY spring-roll job is handling the rice papers. You dip these in a bowl of warm water to soften them, but if they’re left too long, they’ll come out sticky, like plastic wrap.
Assuming you did this successfully, you place the softened rice paper on a dish, pile on the fillings and sauce, fold like a burrito and eat. Meanwhile, you keep an eye on the paper-thin beef simmering in the pot of boiling broth on the table. The broth is flavored with anchovy, but it’s nonetheless delicate. You can choose between mild or spicy broth, or half of each in a divided pot.
You’re not totally on your own through all of this, though. Staff members replenish the broth as you cook, and they’ll stop by to add pine mushrooms, bok choy, napa cabbage and beet greens from your veggie platter. This makes a flavorful base for your post–spring rolls dish: thick, soothing rice porridge.
When all the meat is finished, a server tips a bowl of rice, kabocha squash and seaweed into the broth and thickens it with beaten egg from a squeeze bottle. If you have a divided pot, rice noodles (à la pho) go into the broth on the other side so that you end your meal with two starchy dishes.
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All this food isn’t cheap. Even lunch specials (Monday through Friday) go from $15.99 (for ordinary beef shabu shabu with spring rolls) up to $47.99, if you want Wagyu beef. And that’s per person. You do get kimchi, cucumber pickles and an airy salad of finely shredded red and green cabbage, all of which lulls you into thinking that the declarations of "healthy," "nutritious," fresh" and "detox" that greet you above the back entrance just may be right.
Shabu Hyang, 3807 Wilshire Blvd., #120, Koreatown. (213) 384-5464.