2012 has been a very interesting year in terms of Korean food.
There’s the completely disgusting garbage I’d eat at Star Pochang and Toe bang, then there’s the home cooked food I get pretty often. I try to have as little of either as possible because most of the time they both really just ticks me off. You never realize how gross bin dae dduk is until you compare to a well made pratha or Earthen’s scallion pancake. I also do not “get” goopy okonomiyaki, but hey, that’s a whole ‘nother story.
A few weeks back, I finally saw what I perceived to be some semblance of a Korean “breakfast” joint in a part of town that I thought I knew well. Hyun Poong Gom Tang was in a small plaza just South of Yellow House, a cute home converted into a smoky Korean lounge. Hyun Poong Gom Tang is known for gom tang, but that could interest me less. I wanted to know what some Korean regions ate for breakfast. It turns out the breakfast menu was rather pathetic, and I was distraught as soon as I saw “haejangguk” (various forms of hangover soup) and soon dae gook (blood sausage soup). Seriously, it’s like Koreans don’t know how to function/eat without thinking about, getting, or recovering from being drunk.
I was mulling my options (mostly, how to get the F outta Ktown and go hit up some jerk / rib shack south of the 10) when I spotted a $20 deal offering a pot of meat and a bottle of soju. It was clear this su yuk (boiled meat) dish was not meant to be eaten as hangover elixir because… well, it came with a bottle of soju. The entire room stared as the order was put in and the waitress asked: what kind of soju do you want. I was like: dude, it’s soju, it’s 11:00 A.M. just bring out the stew.
Previously, my biggest complain about sullungtang and gomtang is the utter lack of substance. If you like a pointless bowl of matzoh ball soup, you may like sulluntang. Blandness was not a problem when the shallow and wide pot of su yuk appeared on top of a chafing burner at Hyun Poong. The cauldron stank of beef and offals. At least 6 cuts of beef (and some pork?) appeared that day at 11:30 — shank, stomach (two kinds), short ribs, tendon, tongue and some other guts and glory. The murky broth was barely salted, but there were condiments on the side (naturally) which were meant for dipping while some other plates offered hot chili paste, wild seasme seeds and some Korean sea salt. A bowl of rice was given, but don’t fall prey to dumping the entire bowl of rice into the su yuk as Koreans are want to do.
This $14 (assuming soju at the restaurant price of only $6) bowl of beef soup was enough for 2, if the other party was willing to consume offal protein. What’s unusual was that Hyun Poong wasn’t overboard with the MSG. There certainly were some flakes, but I didn’t die of MSG angst afterwards. The panchan were unnotable, but this pot of beef really countered the heavy-handedness that plagues Koreatown grub these days. It made me so happy that a bit of nose-to-tail cooking could be found here, especially because the soon dae gook had bits of pork and quite a few strands of soft pig ears. That’s right: soon dae gook with actual pork and even pig ears. Go check this out before Koreans realize they were actually putting some meat into a paltry pot of dish water soup.
Hyun Poong Gom Tang
244 S Oxford Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90004
Second up is a mostly glossed over restaurant that opened just East of the noodle complex (Kam Hong/Beijing Pie House). The strip mall that hosts Wok BBQ actually has more restaurants than the Kam Hong/Beijing Pie House plaza, but it’s largely undiscovered by anyone but non-locals. Facing the street is WOK BBQ, which really doesn’t serve any kind of BBQ, but the food does come in a small wok. So that’s only 50% of a misleading name. There are nearly thirty reviews on Yelp, but this place isn’t written up anywhere, despite its popularity, despite it’s longevity (facebook page showing opening August 2009), especially for a tiny joint with no Chinese advertising.
The premise is primitive: the kitchen stir fries up a small wok’s worth of stuff, add in some soup, let the entire amalgam braise slowly at about 140 degrees or so on top of a induction tabletop hot plate. Everyone picks off from the shallow wok, and proceeds to get burnt either by the scalding food or the fearsome chili oil. The “dry” hotpots (dry because there is nary any soup to speak of) are offered in mild, medium, spicy, but almost every pot appeared red as a Hawaiian sunset. That’s just how it’s done. Everything seems simple, but there’s a technique to this. First, some key ingredients are pre-cooked to allow hungry guests to jump in immediately, unlike “regular” hotpotting. In the fish and the chitlin’ pots, both proteins come ready go, carrying plenty of flavor as they were already hot fired in the kitchen’s big wok. There’s also a trick to eating the 10+ ingredients (mushroom, vermicelli, tofu, cauliflower, lotus root, napa, cilantro, celery, etc) in the wok pot.
Certain veggies are not pre-cooked (cauliflower, lotus root, etc.), but some are (napa, mushrooms). You gotta play mind games against the pot. Eat the protein first, pair that with some napa cabbage chock full of salt and spices. Leave the lotus root til the very end, but you can dabble with cauliflower as it softens through out the meal. It’s a process, but great success can be achieved. The base pots are about $20, and includes one meat (can chose chitlin or frog legs for the more adventuresome), with additional veggies and noodles at about $2 each. $30 worth here at Wok BBQ comfortably feeds 3. Rice is a bit extra. There is no farm-to-table cuisine here, but this pot, it’s just so intensely pleasurable, and it has the secondary benefit of acting as colon cleanse the next day.
Also of note: the waiters here are almost robotic. Robotic isn’t even the right word as they’re not particularly efficient. They’re just very low on EQ. Another note, if you don’t dig the dry pot concept, ask for some non-spicy chicken stock to be added in at the very beginning so avoid drying out the pot and allow more thorough cooking of the raw vegetables.
910 E Garvey Ave
Monterey Park, CA 91755
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