New Yorkers consider it a sign of a superior civilization that its bars stay open until 4 a.m. Cosmopolitan Spaniards consider it barbaric to eat dinner before 10 or 11. But while it is less true than it used to be that Los Angeles restaurants are all closed before a certain kind of person has even risen from her disco nap, we have all experienced what I’ve come to think of as the Panic Hour, that brief window of time after a show or a Dodger game when restaurants don’t quite honor their 11 p.m. closing times; where you wander into completely empty dining rooms; where the kitchen is suddenly closed; where you bounce between three or four places, a half-dozen phone calls and a futile scroll through tiny Yelp maps on your cell phone; where you try to remember the name of the new place in Studio City that you’d heard was open until midnight.
So you end up at Shibucho again, eating salt-grilled sanma seasoned with failure and regret. Or at Canter’s. Or at Denny’s. Or contemplating the long line at Pink’s.
At such times, there is always Thaitown and its generous late-night hours — at Sanamaluang, the pain of a properly seasoned pad kee mao can sometimes be enough. The salt-baked shrimp, sautéed pea shoots and oyster casseroles at Full House in Chinatown are never quite as succulent as they would have been during the dinner rush, but still, they’re not bad. And then there’s Koreatown, which is probably home to as many 24-hour restaurants as the rest of Los Angeles put together, redoubts of noodles and kim chi and all sorts of nourishing soups, acceptable barbecue and chicken wings so spicy that possession is probably a felony in several Midwestern states. Piper’s, the Western Avenue coffee shop that nurtured generations of the surly East Hollywood nocturnal, has rechristened itself a sul jip, so that you can get kalbi with your Belgian waffles and wash it down with beer.
At 8 p.m., you would probably never notice the restaurant Bulrocho, yet another storefront in a huge Korean minimall, flanked by specialists in Korean rice cakes, blood sausage and puppies (the last is a pet store), literally in the shadow of Park’s, which at the moment is probably the best Korean barbecue in town. YongSuSan and the Dragon are just across the street; A-Won and Kobawoo are steps away. Even if the place seemed like your kind of restaurant, its lack of an English sign, sparsely populated tables and mild but distinctly gamy aroma might cause you to shrug and look for a branch of BCD Tofu instead, where, unlike Bulrocho, you probably won’t be confronted with huge flatscreens streaming tape of the North Korea missile launch every few minutes on YTN, Seoul’s version of CNN, 24 hours a day.
After midnight though, when it is beginning to look like a meal of screaming teenagers and indifferent ddukbokkum at Hodori is inevitable, Bulrocho starts to look pretty good — a clean, well-lighted room, solicitous waitresses, and a backlit sign outside highlighted by a mammoth portrait of a handsome black goat.
“How did you know we serve goat?” asked the puzzled waitress, handing us a copy of the elaborately bound photomenu.
“The big picture on the sign outside?’’ I said.
“Oh — that’s right. Goat is our specialty.’’
To be fair, Bulrocho, unlike some other Koreatown restaurants, isn’t merely a goat specialist. As a 24-hour restaurant, it serves its share of the traditional Korean restoratives, including a respectable version of the milky beef-bone soup sullongtang, the spicy blood soup hejangguk, and a healthy soup made with tofu and several kinds of wild mushrooms that seems to be the most popular dish at lunch. There is the requisite chicken-ginseng soup samgyetang here, although I have never come in early enough to snag a bowl before it sells out. If you’re lucky, you may be offered a taste of the house soju, a tea-colored cordial flavored with steeped fresh ginseng.
But you’ve come to eat goat, as well as to nibble at an array of panchan that always includes a snappy fresh-daikon kimchi and a small, extremely bony whole fried fish. Sure, there’s the soup of goat intestines: Be my guest. And the most obvious order is probably the goat platter, available in sizes to feed 2, 4 or 8, an arrangement of sliced goatmeat served in broth on a ceramic plate, like a Korean goat pot a feu, that seethes over a Sterno inferno. You pick out a piece of goat, keeping or discarding the rubbery but delicious skin that adheres to it, and season it to your liking, smearing it with yellow bean paste perhaps, dipping it in a mixture of soy and hot mustard, heaping on a little of the house condiment of chopped herbs bound with tart chile sauce and the fiery chile paste gochujang, or wrapping it in a pungent leaf of kkaennip, Korean perilla, with a slice or two of jalapeño and a clove of raw garlic.
Still, if you’ve come this far, you might as well try Bulrocho’s famous dish, an herb-infused goat soup served bubbling in a ceramic pot, a complex, red concoction of soft goat meat and deep, long-simmered broth, handfuls of chiffonaded greens and tiny, crunchy mustard seeds, and half a dozen other things that only a student of Korean traditional medicine could identify without a handbook. Jewish chicken soup makes you feel better after eating it; just sniffing Bulrocho’s soup makes you feel healthier.
And if you’re of that sort of mind, you can always contemplate the song “Baptized in Black Goat Blood” from Inquisition’s classic Magnificent Glorification of Lucifer album. Me, I’d rather just have another bowl of soup.
Bulrocho: Open daily, 24 hours. Beer, wine and soju. Takeout and delivery. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$50. Recommended dish: goat soup. 955 S. Vermont Ave., L.A. (213) 383-0080.