Korean Chinese food is not Chinese food in the way that Chinese people, American people (or Chinese-American folks) might envision it. It stands on the pillar of four major dishes: Jjajangmyeon (or noodles with caramelized black soybean sauce), jjam ppong (spicy seafood noodle soup), mandu (dumplings, both fried and steamed) and tang su yook (rice-flour-battered pork in sweet-and-sour sauce). Like in America, however, Chinese takeout or delivery in Korea serves a similar function: Greasy, carbohydrate-laden sustenance for the Netflix-and-sweats set. There are dozens of restaurants in the Greater Los Angeles area that serve Korean Chinese food. There are none that do it quite like Lee’s Noodles, a shop that recently opened in Koreatown.
The restaurant, which serves up the above-mentioned Korean Chinese favorites in the far-end of the Dunn-Edwards strip mall off Vermont Ave. and 4th Street, is owned by Don Shin, a reticent, bespectacled Korean man in his mid-50’s who slouches over a stool near the cash register. His wife, So Young Jin, whisks around the walnut-colored tables and checks the inventory in PAUL, the attached coffee and sorbet bar.
Here’s the other thing: In addition to PAUL, Lee’s Noodles also contains Dok Dok Chicken, a Korean fried chicken concept that serves up deep fried Twinkies alongside soy garlic-glazed pieces of crunchy chicken so sticky that they render napkins useless. It’s already gaining a bit of a cult following with locals, including one seeming regular who looked perfectly content tucking into half a chicken in a corner booth by himself.
Soy garlic-glazed pieces of crunchy chicken so sticky that they render napkins useless
With all of these distractions, it’s hard to imagine that Lee’s Noodles could serve up an even passable jjajangmyeon or jjam ppong. Instead, it somehow serves up the best version of both dishes in the city.
"In Korea, jjajangmyeon and jjam ppong is food for the common people," Jin says in Korean. "Despite being inexpensive, for many of us it’s still a food to celebrate special occasions, whether it’s a graduation or a birthday. And when dad comes home with a little extra money on pay day, maybe he’ll also order some tang su yook as a treat."
Jjajangmyeon hardly comes off as special occasion eats, and it’s the folksy, blue-collar charm of Jin’s sentiment that makes the typically greasy noodle dishes a forgivable indulgence. At first bite of Lee’s Noodles, however, it becomes immediately apparent that this is not ordinary Korean Chinese food by any stretch — and that, well, ascribing "special occasion meal" status without a drop of irony might be somewhat justified.
I can't help but scoop bits of the jjajang sauce with my chopsticks and eat it like Elvis tackling a spoonful of peanut butter
Take, for instance, the jjajangmyeon. Thick, fettuccine-width flour noodles are at once supple and chewy and undeniably handmade. The jjajang sauce, a stir-fried black soybean sauce that’s simultaneously sweet, salty and savory manages not to be unctuous. The onions, zucchini, and subtle hints of sweet potato are minced into a consistency resembling Bolognese sauce to help them stick to the noodles. Once the noodles are gone, I can’t help but scoop bits of the jjajang sauce with my chopsticks and eat it like Elvis tackling a spoonful of peanut butter.
And then there’s the jjam ppong, which takes a bed of those same noodles and steeps it in a crimson bouillabaisse of massive black mussels, shrimp, octopus, and onions. The mouth-watering heat of the chili oil and red pepper flakes in the broth is a shibboleth to steel-stomached ajjummas (middle-aged women) and roughneck ajeoshis (middle-aged men) of the old country, and the beef and seafood broth is a master class in playing heat against flavor.
Korean ex-pats or those familiar with Korea’s Myung-In Mandu (essentially the Korean version of Din Tai Fung) might recognize a familiar herringbone-styled pleating on the dumplings. According to Jin, Lee’s Noodles poached a chef from Myung-In Mandu to produce their meat and kimchi dumplings, which they also sell frozen in bags.
With a quirky storefront and prices of $6.99 for a bowl of jjajangmyeon or $7.99 for a bowl of jjam ppong, Lee’s Noodles just might change the way everyone sees Chinese food — this Korean included.
Lee's Noodles is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, except it's closed on Tuesdays.
401 S Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90020