Day 86: South Korea
There isn’t a huge difference between North Korean and South Korean food, so this day requires some special thanks to Jonathan Gold for finding and reviewing the two places we’re going today, which specialize in southern regional dishes. So with a stomach still full of turkey and pie, the show must go on and I’ve got some Korean food to eat. We’re starting off at Chunju Han-il Kwan for a dish called budae jigae , which was invented, like many other great dishes, out of necessity. After the Korean War, there wasn’t a lot of meat around, so people started using whatever they could find— and for some, that meant war rations from U.S. army bases. Thus, a fiery, kimchee -laden stew was born, but filled up with some good old-fashioned USA nostalgia: Spam and hot dogs. The dish has achieved mainstream popularity and now includes many other ingredients, like rice cakes, yams, instant ramen noodles, or whatever the chef feels like. What started as a survival dish from war times has become delicious and truly South Korean dish. Obviously, I’ve got to try it.
With my brother in town for just one more day, I decide that Korean food in Los Angeles is a good thing for him to experience, so we meet up in K-Town for lunch with “Danielle”, Bex and my old friend Cristina (a serious food lover). We squeeze into a small-ish table in this 24-hours-a-day-7-days-a-week restaurant (which I hope to visit at 4 a.m. on a future day when I’m really hungry or hung over.) Bex, Cristina and my brother try to figure their way through the menu, but “Danielle” and I know we’re here for just one thing— and it’s pretty big, so we’re splitting it. The five of us munch panchan (small Korean appetizers) and bean-infused rice while a bubbling vat of bright-red budae jigae is set on a hot plate. The budae jigae shares the table with a big scallion pancake, a meatless dolsot bibimbap (rice and veggies in a hot stone bowl), a kimchee hot pot and something which the waitress couldn’t really explain in English, but seems like a small mushroom hot pot. Everything is pretty respectable, but the eclectic wonderland that is budae jigae is where all the magic is happening. The broth is really flavorful, with a nice kick to it, and ladling it into your bowl can be a little precarious, but the real fun comes from dipping in your spoon, pulling it up and seeing what mysterious prizes await you. A bite of instant ramen noodles, some cabbage, something green…these flavors all make sense…and then you get a bite of something that grabs your tongue and immediately transports it to a backyard barbecue on the 4th of July. Was that a hot dog? Then with the next bite, it’s gone, and and you’re back to more typical Korean ingredients. It’s an exciting roller coaster of flavors, carrying you back and fourth across the Pacific Ocean as your taste buds start to adjust and, eventually, the whole process combines into one big pot of pure delicious.
A few hours later, after a brief stop back home, I’m driving back to Koreatown, now with GirlfriendBites, to meet up with some friends at Masan, a restaurant that specializes in southern seafood and is known in particular for their monkfish stew (called angler fish on the menu). We step inside the fish-tank-filled restaurant, which serves all manner of live ocean dwellers, as “Danielle” tries to talk to the hostess about where we can seat a group of ten. Then the hostess takes “Danielle” by the arm, telling her to come alone, and leads her into the back of the restaurant. A few minutes later, “Danielle” returns, letting us know that we’re all allowed to sit in the back room. “What happened back there,” I ask. “I’m not really sure,” she answers as we pile back into the nice, open rear section that has screens replacing certain sections of the wall, meaning they can technically call it “outside” and allow smoking. We order some Korean beers (OB and Hite ) while waiting for the rest of our group and trying to decide what to get to eat.
The menu doesn’t make a ton of sense, but there is something that looks it’s served family style, includes the monkfish stew, a lot of other things and even some beer and soju (a type of Korean booze). We ask if it’s enough for ten people, but the waitress says “maybe order two of them”, so we figure we’ll start with one, then get something else later. But the food is taking a little while, so we get two orders of “live octopus”. An assortment of sauces are brought out, followed by two plates of chopped, raw octopus tentacles, which are, amazingly, still moving. They’re a little difficult to pick up with chopsticks, since the suction cups are still going strong and clinging to the bottom of the bowl. I grab a chunk, dip it in an sesame oil sauce, then pop it in my mouth. If you don’t start chewing right away, the tentacles start sticking to any part of your mouth they can— but the fact of the matter is that octopus is a delicious animal, so when it’s this fresh, it’s really, really good. The sesame sauce is my favorite, but the chili sauces are really good as well.
My crew is hooting and hollering as everybody gets in on the fun and is really enjoying the food. One tentacle manages to drop on GFB’s iPhone, and sticks with Herculean strength, even wiggling it’s way up toward the top, as Mr. Meatball yells “Keep it off the earpiece!” The beer and sojuu keep flowing, and people are now having a lot of fun. Then a few minutes later, a block of wood the size of a boogie board lands in the center of the table, covered with shredded radish and topped with an impressive amount of halibut sashimi, as well as some fresh, sliced abalone. In true Korean fashion, we wrap the sashimi in lettuce with some chili, garlic, soy sauce and a little shiso, as I enjoy the raw fish that I’ve been craving for quite some time. “This meal is really low carb ,” says Jeff, as most of the girls at the table nod in agreement. It is a really vibrant, powerful and less fattening alternative to a bunch of sushi with white rice, and is quite enjoyable.
What seems like stewed monkfish with some sort of vegetable noodles comes next, and it makes us all really happy. That is, until people start discovering the sea squirts. Sea squirts are a type of underwater creature that eat by filtering (like an oyster), and cling onto boats, reefs and the like. As far as I know, Korean culture is the only one that eats these little oceanic pods, and if you ever find yourself biting into one— you’ll know it. The smaller they are, the more tender, but it’s the big ones that are the most exciting. They have a tough exterior, but when you chomp through it, a burst of iodine-flavored ocean liquid explodes into your mouth with a loud crunch, and it’s amazingly fun watching people eat them for the first time. Some people, like me, think they’re really tasty and exciting. Others are in between, and don’t close their mouths tightly enough, resulting in sea squirt juice flying out on to the table. Then there are people like Mr. Meatball, who takes a bite, and makes a face which I described at the time as looking like “you were watching your mom have sex with your sister,” (that’s apparently where my mind goes after a few beers and soju) which was an analysis that he actually agreed with.
Our next course is basically a spicy tuna hand roll, but with kimchee as the spice agent, which is pretty interesting, even if the kimchee totally dominates any semblance of the raw fish’s delicacy. But since they brought each of us our own hand roll, we’re starting to wonder whether we ordered one large family dinner, or two. We ask, but their answer isn’t very clear. Then a few minutes later, our server comes to tell us that the manager wants to offer us some raw lobster on the house. What did we do to deserve this? I’m not totally sure. Maybe they’re just hoping to get some more white people to start coming to the restaurant, but regardless— when somebody offers you free lobster, you take it. So two live lobsters come out, with the tail cracked open and the meat sliced, sashimi style, and placed back inside. The meat is extremely tasty, but it’s hard to pay it too much attention, since the head of the lobster is staring at us and still moving. That’s right, we’re eating lobster which is still mobile— even if it is just leftover electric pulses. But we are all having an incredibly good time, even though GFB is a little terrified by these zombie crustaceans.
Then the pièce de résistance: monkfish soup. Remember the broth I loved from the budae jigae earlier in the day? This one is better. Packed full of barely dead seafood, the flavors have joined together to create something really special. I’ve had my fair share of delicious monkfish , but as of right now, this stuff takes the cake. If Homer Simpson dreams of Germany as “the land of chocolate”, where everything, including the dogs, are made of chocolate, then I want Masan , the southern coastal city of South Korea, to have its ocean be made entirely of this soup. If every other part of this evening were adventurous and fascinating, this soup is comfort, relaxation and the ideal close to a meal that was absolutely spectacular in every sense of the word. This dinner has quickly vaulted itself into the upper echelons of the best meals and most fun I’ve had at any point in the last eighty-six days. As I look across the table at all the new people I’ve met over the course of this project, eying the destructed remains of another great feast, it’s hard to feel anything but an overwhelming joy over being alive in the first place. I only hope that my friends can have as much fun on the heels of my death, as we did with the that of all these delicious and still wiggling sea creatures.
Chunju Han-il Kwan
3450 W 6th St # 106
Los Angeles, CA 90020
Food Breakdown: 1 appetizer, 3 normal entrées, 1 enormous entrée that could have fed the entire table
Distance From My House: 8.8 miles
2851 W Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90006
Food Breakdown: A lot of soju, a lot of beer, 4 living appetizers, abalone, an enormous tray of sashimi, 10 hand rolls, 2 plates of grilled fish, 4 bowls of monkfish related entrées
Price: $285 (for ten people)
Distance From My House: 7.5 miles