For photographs, view Anne Fishbein's slideshow “Live Octopus, Shrimp and Urchins: Masan Restaurant's Writhing Seafood.”
Korean restaurants, at least the best ones in Los Angeles, tend to specialize in a single type of food, whether tofu or pork belly, blood sausage or porridge, even if they all seem to feature galbi or bibimbap. The restaurants where you go for kim bap, a sort of Korean analog to sushi, are not the same as the ones you visit for actual Korean sushi. And the places with the best pork barbecue are different from the ones with the best pork-neck soup. You don’t order squid at an octopus restaurant. You go to the grilled-intestine restaurant for grilled intestines — you’re wasting your time otherwise. And may the Lord help you if you try to get chap chae noodles at a bar or tteok bokkum at a fine restaurant, because it takes a while to recover from the intensity of the sneers.
Masan, on a dark stretch of Olympic in the heart of Koreatown, is one of the oldest Korean restaurants in Los Angeles, a center for seafood and Hite beer since the 1970s. The smoking ban is enforced a bit more rigorously than it tends to be elsewhere in Koreatown, and there is always a knot of men leaning on the wall outside, sucking down a Camel or two between courses, shouting encouragement to motorists attempting to wiggle their cars into the wee parking lot. When you walk into the place at a vaguely off hour, you may be surprised at the sheer number of waitresses that seem to haunt the dining room, smartly decked out in black-and-white uniforms, looking less like restaurant personnel than like a corps of flight attendants set to board an especially oversold 747.
Masan, as its Korean name, Masan Agujjim, implies, is probably the most prominent restaurant in Koreatown specializing in the monkfish stew called agujjim. Agujjim is the specialty of the southern coastal city Masan, famous for its fish market and for its rebellious politics, and there are apparently entire streets lined with cafés devoted to the dish. At the Koreatown restaurant, agujjim is a seething bowl of monkfish, bean sprouts and as much chile as you can stand, sparked with a handful of chopped scallions and probably hiding a few sea squirts, peculiar invertebrates that look like scale-model replicas of moons from a planets-of-the-solar-system kit and explode into rich, iodine-tinged liquid when you chomp them between your teeth. (I had always thought sea squirts were exotic trawler bycatch — there are shallows where invasive sea squirts have basically taken over the ecosystem — but they are actually farmed in parts of Korea, and sea squirt bibimbap is a specialty of Geojae-do island, not far from Masan.) The simmered fish becomes chewy, almost meaty, less like poor man’s lobster than like a kind of marine pork. Agujjim is almost an automatic order here.
After a bowl of the agujjim, a few plates of basic kimchi and a small bottle or two of soju, you will probably glance around the dining room, and you will probably notice the bank of bubbling live tanks, a display closer to Marineland than to the timid aquaria that hide the back of fancy Cantonese restaurants. And if you are in that kind of mood, and have a working credit card, the treasures of the sea start to appear on your table one by one, raw prawns perhaps, with their still-quite-lively heads glaring at you from the plate where they have been placed as garnish; farmed abalone fresh enough to squirm when you bite into it; sea urchin, spines still wiggling, whose nutty orange roe you scoop out of its shell; or a kind of pale conch with flesh dark and bitter as liver. If you like grilled eel, or perhaps too-fresh halibut sashimi, those fish are in the tanks too.
But the marquee dish here, at least for non-Koreans, is Koreatown’s most accessible version of san nakji, the live-octopus preparation you have probably heard about, or even seen in the movie Oldboy, where one of the characters suffocates eating it at a sushi bar. When the waitress brings it out in a square saucer, it will probably be the most dismaying thing you have ever seen on a dish, lengths of chopped tentacle squirming on the plate like a mass of fat night crawlers, dodging your chopsticks, escaping onto the table, stretching themselves out into long wriggling earthworms and then contracting violently when you dip them into the traditional sauce of sesame oil and salt. The tentacles may not be technically alive — it’s a chicken-with-its-head-cut-off thing — but they are closer to it than you may be comfortable with. And while you are unlikely to suffocate, the suckers are still fully functional, and unless you chew them extremely well, a tentacle may become a permanent addition to your tongue.
Masan, 2851 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown, (213) 388-3314. Dinner nightly to 2 a.m. Beer, wine and soju. AmEx, MasterCard, Visa. Recommended dishes: agujjim, san nak ji, live sea urchin.