You have to be willing to get your hands dirty to eat Korean pork bone soup. What you get is a bowl piled high with savory bones in steaming, spicy red broth, which looks generous until you realize these are neck bones, certainly not the meatiest part of the pig. What little meat there is you’ll have to pick from an intricate network of tiny crevices, so you’d better be adept with chopsticks; a fork is too clumsy for this job.
Interestingly, the Korean name of the soup, gamjatang, doesn’t refer to pork at all. Gamja means potato, and tang is soup, and while potatoes might be there in a minor way the bones are the main deal.
You can spoon up the broth with the bits of meat you’ve extracted or, you can scoop up some rice, dip it in the bowl and smother it with intense red-chile goodness. Rice isn’t an extra; it comes with the soup. So does banchan for when you want to pick at something easier than bones. Here are three Koreatown places known for gamjatang:
Koreans in search of gamjatang flock to this Olympic Boulevard restaurant. It’s best to go for lunch, when the soup is only $8.99. To appreciate that bargain, check the wall menu, which shows prices up to $39.99 (for a large gamjatang, placed on a tabletop burner). The small is still pricey at $29.99.
In this lunch special, you can choose add-ons such as more bones, noodles, ramen or greens, either sesame leaves or u-geoji (Chinese cabbage leaves). The broth is moderately spicy, not scary hot. Greens, green onions and perilla seeds decorate the top of the steaming pot. The lunch size is enough for two, but you might want to order another dish to go with it. There are plenty of choices at the same price, from spicy rice cakes to bibimbap and kimchi stew.
The name Gamja Gol translates to a village known for potatoes, and a smiling potato is the logo on the restaurant's business card. This makes it a fitting place for potato soup, even if it’s mainly pork.
Gamja Gol, 3003 West Olympic Boulevard #107, (in Chung-Ki-Wa Plaza); (213) 381-6446
Gamjatang is so important here, it’s the first dish listed under soups and stews. Look for “pork neck stew with potato” if you can’t read the name in Korean. At $19, it’s the priciest thing on the menu, but there’s plenty for two people. If you’re really hungry pair the soup with barbecued spare ribs, another of the restaurant’s pork specialties. Hot off the grill, they’re juicy and crusted with caramelized bits.
Despite the price, this is the plainest of the three soups on this list. It’s garnished only with green onions. However, the red chile broth is bright and delicious. To drink you get iced barley tea (boricha), which soothes away the spiciness. If that doesn’t cool you down enough, there’s a Korean shaved-ice place a few steps away.
The first Hamjipark is on Pico Boulevard and you can get the same soup there. The advantage of eating at the Sixth Street branch, though, is that you’re in the heart of Koreatown shopping.
Hamjipark, 3407 W. 6th St., #101-C; (323) 365-8773
This relatively new restaurant offers perhaps the most interesting experience with its namesake dish. Compared to the simple gamjatang at Hamjipark, this version comes topped with green onions, sesame leaves and perilla seeds, with additional perilla seeds on the side. You also get a bowl of sweetened mustard sauce with jalapeños so that you can experiment with different nuances of spiciness.Along with potato, the soup contains napa cabbage.
At lunch, it’s $9.95. Bigger pots for groups come at bigger prices. Even so, the lunch size is hearty enough that lone diners may want to take some home.
The banchan are more serious too, with meaty elements like sliced hot dogs with vegetables and a sausage slice with zucchini.
If you’ve never eaten this soup, don’t judge it by the photographs on the wall here. They’re grayed out, not like the lively, red bowl you’ll be slurping from. An extra bonus: If you're circling around at odd hours, Yangji Gamjatang is likely to be open. Gamjatang for breakfast anybody?
Yangji Gamjatang, 3470 W. 6th Street, #6;, (213) 388-1105.