Matt Rodbard, a freelance journalist, and Deuki Hong, most recently the chef at Kang Ho Dong Baek Jeong in New York City, published Koreatown: A Cookbook, last week. The book, a compilation of the Korean-American immigrant story and recipes, is a major celebration of the cuisine and its expressions across the United States. Eater sat down with Rodbard and Hong to talk about what makes LA's Koreatown, the quintessential concentration of Korean restaurants, so compelling and unique.
What's markedly different about LA's Koreatown versus the one in New York City?
Matt Rodbard: The single topic restaurants are really interesting from a research perspective. Places like Seoul Soondae, A-Won, and Hanbat Suhllungtang. It's valuable to see places that focus on the art of the single dish. Even places like Kimbap Paradise make really good rice rolls.
Deuki Hong: LA has better food. It's possible because you have better produce, a greater crayon box, so to speak. Also, it's hard to bank on just one menu item in Manhattan because of real estate prices. If I'm only making gamjatang (pork neck stew), it had better be the best, but even in New York City you don't really have that luxury. The Korean food is affected by that.
What was your favorite restaurant that you enjoyed in Los Angeles?
MR: Soban. It was the first time I had ganjang gaejang (raw soy marinated crab), which is one of the greatest Korean dishes of all time. I later had it in Seoul, but couldn't find it in New York City. The galbijim there is also a great example of the dish.
DH: The Corner Place. I just can't get over how good the dong chimi cold noodles are. It's almost too sweet. I make dong chimi every day in my restaurant and the flavor changes, even from the morning to the evening. It's a fickle son of a b****. I'm more impressed with the consistency because every time I go, it's dead on. When I go to the Corner Place, I just get an order of those noodles and a single order of meat, which is still huge. The interplay between hot and cold is great.
MR: I also love they way they serve those noodles, in big bowls with a sliver of tomato. I also recommend Hamjipark's gamjatang and chung guk jang (heavily fermented soybean stew). If you take someone there, it's a change for them to try Korean food that isn't barbecue.
What else did you enjoy about LA's Korean food scene?
MR: LA's Korean food starts with Jonathan Gold. His list of 60 Korean dishes, which was the last thing he published for the LA Weekly before he went to the LA Times, is his greatest body of work, his magnum opus. It's 13,000 words and I would have it bookmarked on my browser when I was writing the book.
What's your view of Korean cuisine, and perhaps as an extension, Korean culture, after writing this cookbook?
MR: The one thing I've seen time after time, and that I still find challenging to understand, is the modesty that Koreans have about their food. In the greater food world, you typically see unwashed promotion, which you have to do because it's such a low margin business. Korean restaurant don't tend to do that. You get this inate modesty, a humble attitude about that amount of labor that goes into the cuisine. No one really explains how hard it was to go to the market early in the morning, make the marinade days ago, and procure all the ingredients. Or discuss how all the dumplings are hand rolled and labor intensive. Koreans won't tell you how much work it is.
It's a contrast to Japanese cuisine, which is a little stronger on the showmanship. It's embedded into Japanese food culture. But Koreans don't admit it. We write about that often because Koreans who do eat the cuisine understand it. It's an insider's cuisine. They don't need to explain to other Koreans how hard they worked on the baechu kimchi because it's like preaching to the choir.
On a personal level, I found Korean cuisine so uncompromisingly flavorful. Think about chunggukjang, or commonly called dead body soup. I know a lot of Koreans that don't even like that dish. When you cook it, the place smells like a cat shelter. I also can say that I never got sick eating Korean food. I always felt great after eating Korean food.