Eating in Koreatown is like being an inventor in the second half of the 18th century: it's nearly impossible to put forth any effort at all without stumbling onto something exciting. Located in a fairly central and accessible region of our city, this fascinating pocket is densely populated and loaded with all sorts of mouth-watering dishes. Yes, it can be daunting at times if you don't speak or read Korean, but that's why we have Chowhound, food blogs and Jonathan Gold. There's also another system that never seems to fail: if a restaurant is busy, go there. If half the restaurant is eating the same thing, just point to it and say "I'll have that, please." One particularly endearing (and healthy) creation is hwe dup bap, and it is the subject of this week's food fight.
Hwe dup bap is another byproduct of the long and historic dialogue between Japan and Korea. It is a bowl which, in some form or another, contains sashimi, lettuce, and various other accouterments, along with a side of rice. Once it arrives before you, drop the warm rice into the bowl, squeeze on as much of the spicy red chili sauce as you desire, then mix it all together until it looks not unlike an enormous salad.
Our first hwe dup bap was found at Arado Japanese Restaurant, which feels like how we would imagine a Japanese sushi restaurant in the middle of Seoul. It is, in fact, a Japanese restaurant, though the incredibly kind staff is Korean, the menu is exclusively in English and Korean, and they bring you panchan (albeit a somewhat Japanese version) when you sit you down. You can order udon, tempura and a spicy tuna roll if you'd like, but you can get all of that at a non-Korean Japanese restaurant too. The hwe dup bap here comes with tuna, yellowtail and salmon, masago, seaweed, bonito, and a refreshing helping of thinly sliced, crisp red apples.
All together, you wind up with a faintly sweet, somewhat spicy combination, with each bite differing slightly from the previous one. We found this version to be rather pleasant, yet while we certainly don't expect Urasawa-quality fish, a couple of the pieces were less than ideal. Though it must be said, the atmosphere, along with the rather soothing green tea and the gentle hum of Kenny Rogers more than made up for it. The only thing we're not sure of is why, of the four HD televisions on display, all of them had to be showing The Golf Channel.
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At A-Won, another spot known for their hwe dup bap, the service is not as good, the decor is less inviting and the menu is less extensive. But the bowl is bigger, the rice is warmer and better prepared, and most importantly, the fish -- on this day anyway -- was of superior quality. We missed the tiny rods of fresh apple, but our favorite part of the meal may have been the little round nuggets of rice that clumped together and adhered to the tiny orange roe after mixing, making faint popping sounds when eaten. Nonetheless, while we would rather have a birthday party at Arado, if we have a hankering for hwe dup bap (a given), A-Won is our most likely destination.
Arado Japanese Restaurant, 4001 Wilshire Boulevard, Koreatown, (213) 387-1199., A-Won Japanese Restaurant 913 South Vermont Avenue, Koreatown, (213) 389-6764.