Forget Lunchables — the real cool kids in grade school were the ones had kimbap in their brown bags. Those loosely wrapped rice and seaweed rolls stuffed with this and that, a close cousin of Japanese futomaki, are one of the favorite mobile lunches in Korea. You can find packages of kimbap in the deli section of pretty much every Koreatown supermarket, as well as a surprisingly tasty triangular version in the cafeteria of L.A. City College.
For restaurant kimbap there was School Food, a hip K-pop café on the top floor of the ultra-modern GCV Cinema complex. Their neat little rolls, shaped and stacked like miniature film canisters, were pretty good, though it always felt like the equivalent of traveling to Mendocino Farms for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Imagine our elation, then, when we found out about Caju Naneng Myon, a bustling bunshik shop just a few steps down from the Wiltern. Bunshik refers to a casual kind of snack shop in Korea where you can drop in for a quick plate of ddukboki , those oblong rice cakes that vaguely resemble Korean gnocchi, or a personal-sized bowl of hot stone bibimbap.
Not long ago, Caju had a stall inside Gaju Market on Fifth and Western famous for its mool naengmyeon, wiry noodles in an icy beef broth, and its bargain-priced boxes of kimbap. There are about a half-dozen variations of to-go kimbap boxes stacked behind the counter at the new location, with the most popular type — an inexplicable combination of perilla leaves and a style of tuna salad identically to what your mom used to make — selling out right around lunchtime. The bibim naengmyeonn draws crowds, too, a bowl of chilled wheat noodles lathered in a gochujang sauce as thick and fiery as a Roman arrabbiata. A few dishes of banchan sweeten the deal further, including a gloopy potato salad bonded by what we're fairly certain was Miracle Whip.
It would be difficult to locate Caju specifically if not for its massive lunch crowd. Its sign is only in Korean and it has more alternate names than a Tennessee con man; you might see it referred in filings as Gaju Naneng Myon, Gaju Bunshik or Kaju Nangmyun.
But if you manage to find your way and elbow through to a table, all will be worth it. The sausage kimbap (sliced hot dogs, more accurately) crams scrambled egg, fish cake, carrot, sautéed greens and sweet pickled radish into a single bite. Wouldn't your mother be proud of such a balanced lunch?