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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Koreatown Food Tour Roundup: Red Hot Mackerel to Ice Cold Buckwheat Noodles

I recently led a food tour of LA's Koreatown where we made five stops along 6th street and got to sample delicious dishes ranging from kimchi spam stew and shaved ice with red beans to cold buckwheat noodles and fried chicken.

Here are highlights:

1. Seongbukdong

We had the galbijjim, braised short ribs slow cooked in a garlicky, salty and sweet sauce for hours and hours until it delightfully crumbles upon popping a morsel into your mouth.

The godeungeojorim, braised mackerel that was also slow cooked equally garlicky but spicy and slightly sweet. The mackerel chunks were super tender as well, as were the moo, Korean radishes, which are my favorite part of this dish.

We also had grilled mackerel as well grilled covina, or jogi, as the fish is known in Korea. They were both good but I liked the braised version of mackerel better. Grilled versions would be good if you're in the mood for something lighter.

The pork bulgoki, where the meat is marinated in a spicy sauce as opposed to a salty soy sauce-based sauce like the classic beef bulgoki. The marinade wasn't too sweet and the pork would make a fine accompaniment to a cold glass of soju.

The duenjangjjigae, or fermented soy bean paste stew, also known as miso on steroids, was good but I liked the one in Jangan Duenjang better.

Another thing worth noting is the banchan, or side dishes, that come out. The owner personally made the acorn jelly that came topped with a soy sauce, red pepper and scallion mix. The jelly was very concentrated in flavor and I could tell it had been made with care, unlike the commercial ones you find ready-made in markets.
Since the restaurant specializes in Kyungsang Province's regional cuisine from the southeastern part of South Korea with a large coastal area, the seafood dishes are its most popular dishes.

2. Ice Kiss

With temperatures hitting 100+, patbingsoo, or shaved ice with red bean and a bunch of fruit and ice cream, was a welcome treat.

We had different variations with strawberries, bananas, taro or green tea ice cream, all topped with some colorful corn flakes pristinely sitting atop a dollop of whipped cream.

Taro was my favorite, closely followed by the green tea. I love that it had a ton of fresh fruits and not too sweet.

In Korea, it's apparently so popular that every fast food joint offers it, including KFC, Burger King and Mickey D's.

3. Chunju Hanil Kwan

Ah, spam and kimchi. They are like peanut butter and jelly. They go so well together although I must say, it's hard for me to swallow spam these days. I used to love it too, but I think my taste buds have changed.

Having said that, the budaejjigae, or military base stew, as it's called, totally hits the spot with its spiciness and perfectly aged kimchi.

The stew has tragic origins dating back to the Korean War, where US involvement led to the introduction of spam, vienna sausage and other canned, processed foods to Korea. They were considered fancy foods after the war when the country was so impoverished that even garbage and scraps from the US military base was coveted as food. Koreans allegedly threw everything coming out of the bases, including spam and sausage leftovers, into a stew and threw in some kimchi and boiled it to death.

The military base stew was born. Decades later, the stew is now a popular accompaniment to soju among younger generations.

4. Chilbomyunok

We needed another reprieve from the scorching heat so sampled some ice cold nengmyun, buckwheat noodles. A North Korean specialty, we got both the broth one and the one with less broth and smothered in a spicy, tangy and sweet sauce. Both mul nengmyun (brothy one) and bibim nengmyun (spicy one) were very respectable but as my previous review said, I go here for the yooksu, that hot beef broth that basically like extra comforting soup that's at once garlicky, salty and super flavorful.

5. Kyochon Chicken

This photo is officially the very first photo of an actual person, Ruth, who was one of the 13 tour participants. She is sampling the soy and garlic fried chicken leg with some pickled radishes.

I love those radishes, although my beef is with having to pay for what in Korea you would get for free. It felt like paying for kimchi but I'll let it go.

You can still sign up for the 9/22 tour here, which may include slightly different stops and samplings.