Day 10: North Korea
Korean food is one of those cuisines which Los Angeles probably does better than any other U.S. city. We’ve got a tremendously high population of Koreans and it has turned Koreatown into a real beacon of tasty food. Lucky for me, even though North Korea and South Korea eat basically the same food, they are different countries so I get to cover it on two different days. I guess that’s the upside of a country getting split in two and being embroiled in a long, destructive battle since World War II. But rules are rules and a country is a country, so as much as I’d love to devote an entire day to each region of a place like China, I have to draw the line somewhere. If regions and types of cuisines were the differentiation, I’d be doing this for the rest of my life and going insane trying to figure out what counts and what doesn’t. There has to be some way of deciding— and while even country delineations aren’t a sure thing— this seems like the easiest way to make decisions.
In my search for something which could be considered “North Korean” I came upon a dish which was invented in an area that is now North Korea. Seems fair, right? Naengmyeon (which has more western spellings than Hanukkah) is a cold noodle soup served with ice and whatever else you decide to throw in there. It used to be a winter delicacy, but everyone quickly realized that it’s pretty nice on a 105 degree day, so it has become a very popular summer dish. I’m a tad late for L.A.‘s summer heat, but I still want to get my hands on some naengmyeon and Yu Chen is considered by many to make the best in Los Angeles. I’m joined today by GirlfriendBites, folk hero Jason Bernstein (not to be confused with Car Accidents Berstein), food super blogger Tannaz and some other friends. It all begins, of course, with banchan.
Banchan is brought out at every Korean restaurant the way chips and salsa are in Mexican ones. The variety of pickled, steamed and otherwise prepared banchan are particularly good here. We start with an appetizer of kimchee dumplings which are massive and intimidating, but I manage to dip mine in some soy and vinegar and find it quite delicious.
GirlfriendBites and one other guest opt to avoid the naengmyeon and pick a meat-free bibimbap. To their surprise it is served here as a cold dish with the rice on the side (for those of you who want it hot and sizzling, always see if they have “dolsot bibimbap” which means it’s served in a hot stone pot with cooked meat and vegetables). It’s very tasty, but comes off more like a Korean salad than what your average person would expect from the dish.
Now comes The Big Guy. We all ordered our naengmyeon the same way: spicy with beef and raw fish. Towers of crushed ice, shredded vegetables, half a hard boiled egg, beef and fish stained red from the cold opaque broth, all surrounding a mound of thin, dark brown noodles. The waitress brings us a bowl of icy broth on the side, but has a difficult time explaining what we’re supposed to do with it and none of us are coming up with any solid leads on the matter. But it’s time to attack the monster in front of me. During the first bite, my tongue is quickly made happy but my brain is having a hard time processing. It’s cold. It’s icy. It’s spicy. The meat and fish are hardened by the cold. The noodles are small and chewy. It’s an edible wonderland and instantly reminds me how many senses a single plate of food can commandeer. The food is delicious, we’re all very happy, but something is wrong here. The amount of food will not change. The level simply will not go down. Nothing any of us can do is making a dent. Folk hero Jason Bernstein sums it up best: “First I thought they were a little skimpy with the noodles, but now I don’t think I’ll ever finish it.” Twenty minutes of silent, rigorous attack and still no change.
This is infinity soup. I’m full, I’ve been eating forever and there’s still a mountain in front of me. Maybe we should have just ordered one bowl for the table and seen if this soup does in fact refill itself magically until the end of time. As I waddle out of the restaurant, GirlfriendBites reminds me that we’re close to the all-the-rage ice cream place Scoops. She’s been trying to get me to go here for a while. I’m not a big dessert person in general so I try to get out of it by saying “But it’s North Korea Day.” That almost works, until folk hero Jason Bernstein points out that “The owner of Scoops is Korean and he makes it every morning from scratch.” Now keep in mind this doesn’t count as Korean food, but it looks like I’m going to Scoops anyway.
Chocolate wasabi? That’s just one of the ever changing flavor options at this ice cream shop which has recently exploded on the L.A. frozen dairy based confection market. GirlfriendBites goes with brown bread on the bottom and cookies and banana on the top. I pick blueberry ricotta. As ice cream goes, this stuff is spectacular. It’s rich, it’s creamy, the texture is perfect and the flavor combinations really work well. A great place to stop by on a weekend afternoon.
After a nice long nap to help combat the mosquito attacks from last night, I’m ready for more Korean food. To be honest, my stomach was taking some time to adjust to the ever changing ethnic cuisine ingestion, but a couple of hours of sleep fixed me right up. At the recommendation of Tannaz, GirlfriendBites and I head back out to K-Town for a charming little place called Dansungsa. Can a place be considered “charming” when it has a big illustration of Kim Jong-Il out front? Yes it can. Once inside we’re instantly transported out of the United States. It’s not just that the menus are exclusively in Korean and that we’re the only white people here. The mood is different. The air isn’t the same. This ain’t Kansas and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Dansungsa is a place for drinking and eating. It begs for large groups of people, but this weekend’s L.A. Barbecue Festival has horned in on all of my friends. Either that, or the novelty of this Personal Food Project in Blog Form has already worn off and they’ve moved on to other parts of their lives. No matter. This place feels great and I’m just happy to be here. The moment we sit down our server asks “Beer of shochu?” I choose “Both.” We’re brought a simple communal soup which is a warming start to a night of drinking as GirlfriendBites notices the plastered article on the wall reading “Nixon Gives Way To Ford”.
Tannaz had thankfully recommended the scallion pancake for us and after a little confusion we are able to order it. This thing is mammoth. It would be ideal as a starter for a table of six people, but GirlfriendBites and I are no slouches. We add some chili and start digging in. Crispy potatoes, shredded zucchini and somewhere in the ballpark of two whole bunches of scallions go into this thing. It’s a delight. Can Denny’s start offering this instead of hash browns please?
We’re certainly not starving anymore, but we’ve got to get something else, right? After some effort we get the attention of our server. As GirlfriendBites doesn’t eat beef or pork, we ask what she would recommend. She starts listing off a bunch of things and I decide to simplify the matter by saying “Whatever you think. We trust you.” Maybe if I hadn’t drank so much beer and shochu I would have noticed what was going on, but it’s a just a few short minutes later and our table is under attack. Rice cakes in spicy sauce, herb omelet, fried chicken wings and these things which look like rice barbells connected by seaweed. Each dish alone would be enough for a small dinner party, but all together…man oh man. That’s a lot of food.
We can’t help but notice the two guys next to us marveling at our order. I explain what happened and they laugh. I offer them food, they decline, I beg, they decline, I plead…and they relent. They offer their beer, we offer ours and the four of us becomes fast friends. They talk about the authenticity of this place (very) as I chew on the delicious firy rice cakes of varying shapes. They ask if I’ve ever had Korean food before and I say yes, explaining the Personal Food Project in Blog Form between bites of the wonderful, savory omelet. They explain what that side of cold broth from lunch was for (sipping), then the four of us try to deconstruct the very intriguing rice/seaweed barbells which have been kitchen sheared tableside by our server.
The rice is beautifully glutinous and we discover that there are even noodles inside of the strange seaweed bridge. Who knew? But there is one dish which absolutely needs to be discussed above all others: the wings. Perfectly seasoned, totally crispy, amazingly juicy. These might be my favorite wings I’ve ever had in my life. I was full before I started them, but still manage to down about fifteen of these things. It’s almost enough to get me interested in football.
Now I’m absolutely stuffed to the brim and a little wobbly from all the alcohol. GirlfriendBites and I exchange information with our new buddies Jun and H.R. Park, who will hopefully be joining us for South Korea Day. We smile, down the last of our beers and stand up in a total state of bliss. This is one of those nights where, even though things may have gone wrong and we ordered way too much food, everything still ends up feeling magical. The food, the drink, the atmosphere and the company combined in a way that can’t be planned or re-created. It’s the kind of experience you can only have when you throw away your trepidations and dive into something head first. It’s these types of places where, if you keep your mind open and a smile on your face, you really can be transported. Nights like these, I remind myself, are what made me love food in the first place. Nights that makes you realize the difference between eating and having a meal. Food, I am quite sure, can be one hell of a gateway drug to happiness.
Yu Chun Restaurant
3470 W 6th St
Los Angeles, CA 90020
Food Breakdown: 1 appetizer, 6 entrees
Distance From My House: 8.2 miles
712 N Heliotrope Dr
Los Angeles, CA 90029
Food Breakdown: 2 scoops of ice cream
Distance From My House: 13.5 miles
3317 W 6th St
Los Angeles, CA 90005
Food Breakdown: 3 large bottles of alcohol, 5 massive plates of food
Distance From My House: 8.7 miles