Two Koreas

Kathy and Stu are taking a winter break in Los Angeles. Kathy is writing about … what else … what they’re eating.

 Korea I: Thirty-five years ago, my friend Gary was working on an archaeological dig in Ashkelon, Israel. On the weekends, he and his co-diggers would make their way to the old city side of Jerusalem, and an Arabic place with an Arabic name and sign, augmented simply with one English word, “Restaurant.”

The food, Gary remembers, was abundant, cheap, and to a bunch of college boys from Oregon in cowboy hats and desert boots, it seemed exotic: “… a roast chicken quarter, rice pilaf, tomato-cucumber salad and a pile of pita for a couple of bucks at most. Maybe less. The kitchen was upstairs, and the food came down to the waiter via a dumbwaiter. We were almost always the only Anglos in the place.”

I thought of “Restaurant” as we drove through LA’s Korea town on Wednesday night, in search of Soban, one of Eater LA’s picks of top Korean restaurants. It’s a good thing we had the address, because the name was rendered in Korean Hangul alphabet, with only “Korean Restaurant” on the door for us Western travelers in search of real Korean food. As with that far-away Restaurant in old Jerusalem, we were the only non-Koreans in the place, strangers in a strange land.

After we were seated and served a barley and rice tea, I decided the perfect chilly January night dish would be a bowl of Bibimbap, a Korean rice bowl with pickled vegetables, tofu, chicken or pork and kochujang, a fermented soybean and chili paste. When I make Korean bbq-style ribs, I sometimes toast a four-inch square of seaweed nori, slather kochujang down the middle, and lay a few tablespoons of sticky rice on top, fold it over, and lay it on top of the ribs. Kochujang is salty, spicy and mouth filling, like a peppery miso.

But our server had other ideas. She quickly reached down and turned the page of my menu. “You like fish?”  She pointed out the fish dishes, simply described as grilled mackerel, grilled salmon, or grilled cutlassfish. With rice. I had been eyeing the wide array of banchan, or small savory plates, arriving at other tables. My only Korean dining experience has been at a few Korean bbq joints in Portland, but I thought the banchan might be coming our way … IF we ordered the fish dishes. Stu ordered the mackerel, and I picked the cutlassfish, with only some way-back memory of what it might be, thinking perhaps it was a typo for cuttlefish.

And then the banchan arrived, 16 small plates, mostly vegetables: pickled celery, soybean leaf in sesame oil, kimchi (two kinds), sesame spinach, seaweed, pickled eggplant, scrambled egg and fish, broccoli with kochujang, bean sprouts, tofu, kosari (a bit like fern fiddleheads in a red chili sauce), pickled parsley, pickled peppers. They had me at banchan.

Banchan at Soban

Banchan at Soban

Ordering the fish dinner also entitled us to a soup with enoki mushrooms, peppers, squash, soybeans and tofu. It should have been bright and sharply spicy, but I suspect it had spent a good part of the day in a soup pot, held hot for far too long, until the vegetables had lost any sense of resistance, and the soybeans had grown mealy.

The fish, when it arrived, made me push the disappointing soup aside. The full side of mackerel fillet was brushed with a coppery glaze of sugar and soy turning the skin into a crisp jacket, putting the lie to everyone who calls mackerel “oily.” Here, the fat of the fish was a perfect foil for the salty, tangy glaze and crispy skin.

And the cutlassfish? If I hadn’t had to coax the flesh off the very bony fillets of this eel-like fish with slippery stainless steel chopsticks, I could have been in heaven. But I didn’t let that stop me, tossing chunks of the glistening fish into my rice bowl with some tidbit or other from the banchan array.

Eating slowly, plunking those annoying stainless steel chopsticks into one little dish of banchan after another, I had time to eavesdrop. Here, a table away, was a stylish Korean woman and her two teenage daughters, nimbly weaving their way through fish and rice. One girl waved a chopstick at her mother, “See, that’s why I’ll never marry a Korean man.”

A Korean TV channel played over our shoulders, a teenage game show involving jump rope. It seemed so innocent, the faces of the host and kids creased in laughter as one team bested the other in jump roping skills.

“I can hardly imagine American teenagers being happy to play, or watch, jump roping for 30 minutes,” I told Stu. But then, a child trained to dine slowly by eating one small plate after another might well have the patience to jump, over and over again.

Korea II: By now most West Coast food truck lovers have heard the story of the Kogi Korean BBQ fusion taco trucks that tweeted their locations to local LA fans. Now the trucks’ chef, Roy Choi, has grounded himself at two restaurants. One, The A-Frame, is a reclaimed IHOP, located about five miles, and 500 years, from Soban.

With “Group Love” pumping from six massive speakers on the a-frame’s cross beams, the communal tables are filled on a Friday night.  No Koreans here. The wait staff and diners are a blur of colors, like the food.

Fusion cooking got a bad rap in the 70’s and 80’s when practitioners tossed opposites on the plate and hoped for attraction, if not détente. Chefs at the A-Frame and so many other A-list restaurants in New York, LA and Portland are fusing food from a deep understanding of flavor and cuisine. In a world where the great cuisines all serve some sort of grain product (tortilla, flat bread, rice paper wrapper, wonton sheet, steamed bun, hamburger bun, ciabatta roll) wrapped around protein (pork meatballs, chicken strips, hamburger patties, pulled pork, tofu, eggs, shrimp) slathered with fruit and vegetables (lettuce, cabbage, basil, carrots, kale, radishes, pears, tomatoes, mango, avocado) and finished with a sauce (mayonnaise, yogurt, pepper sauce, salsa, chimichuri, raita, bbq sauce) and cheese (you get the idea) it only takes an adventuresome hand with a knowledge born and bred in one cuisine to draw in the flavors of another. A Korean taco is an obvious result. At Nora’s we do this so much that I find it difficult to answer the question, “What kind of food do you serve?” How can I describe Peking duck wings? We apply a French techniques and Chinese flavors, rubbing the wings in an Asian spice mix of coriander, cinnamon and star anise. We air dry them, then confit them in duck fat. We make a traditional Chinese Peking duck sauce, and when the wings are ordered, we pull them from the fat, drop them in the fryer to crisp them, toss them on the radiant grill and brush them with sauce until it is caramelized. Then we serve them with thinly sliced Asian pears that we pickle. The combination? Chinese and American Midwest pickling styles. And that’s just one dish. What about the Mexican dishes? Last week I made a deep red mole, and instead of sesame seeds (one of 12 ingredients) I used a middle-Eastern sesame tahini, bringing a velvety nuttiness to the dish.

A-Frame’s dishes aren’t staid arranged marriages. These are passionate, forbidden Romeo and Juliet love affairs. The grilled lamb meatballs are bathed in a toasted sesame shoyu marinade (Japanese) drizzled with a garlic yogurt (Middle Eastern) and salsa verde (Mexico) served alongside a citrus gremolata salad (Italian).  It works: the lamb is right at home with the garlic and citrus of the salad, craves the salt in the shoyu, the acid in the yogurt and the herbs and peppers in the salsa verde.  Bada yin, bada yang. And there is something inherently Korean about the dish, where at any moment, you might bring a different flavor to fish or chicken by dipping into yet another completely different dish of banchan. Is the pickled parsley right with the chicken, or is it better with a smidge of pickled eggplant or kosari?

In his Octopi LA, Choi digs deep into the Korean play book. Baby octopus are charred, and served with carrot kochujang puree, bok choy, pickled vegetables and nori. The banchan notion is at play here.  But he can’t leave the kochujang alone, bringing a sweet carrot to the party.

Does this always work? The warm cornbread and chicken salad with Italian sausage ragout, salsa verde and pickled red onion left me at the altar. My tongue couldn’t find a toe-hold here. I wanted something less sweet or spicier. But some romances aren’t meant to last forever.

A-Frame's cornbread and chicken salad

A-Frame’s cornbread and chicken salad

Which of the two Koreas was the more satisfying? Soban is the root. A-frame is the branch. Both will keep Korean food alive, and I’m glad that in America, I don’t have to choose.

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