Literally one of the first things I consumed as a human was suhllungtang. My mother loved the rich bone soup served at myriad restaurants around Koreatown when she was pregnant with me and she’d give me mini bowls when I was still a toddler, an age-old dish of soup with rice. Hard to go wrong with that.
With the rise of Koreatown as a bona fide nightlife destination, it’s only a matter of time before the hangover cure restaurants follow suit. While there are plenty of hangover cues installed across the canon of Korean cuisine, perhaps the best one is suhllungtang. The often murky broth is loaded with every kind of nutrient and restorative that washes away the sins of the night prior. Young Dong and Han Bat often serve as the kind of yin-and-yang in this world of supreme hangover cure, with Young Dong’s deliciously clear, consommé-like broth countering Han Bat’s dense, dank broth.
And now, Chakan Suhllungtang has opened on the corner of a large strip mall on 6th and Western, in a spot that seems to revolve around with new concepts every eight months. The place boasts rich, murky-broth suhllungtang with one kicker: everything is healthy. That is, there’s no MSG in this broth (womp-womp) and the bones and meat and certified USDA organic.
If you talk to any middle-aged Korean person, “organic” is like the buzzword of the century. You can convince any health-obsessed Korean person to eat something if it’s “organic,” even cookies, cheesecake, and ice cream (it’s ridiculous, I know, but the rest of America is just as susceptible, right?)
Chakan literally means “nice” or “handsome” depending on the context, and the overall feeling you get when you walk in is one of “cleanliness” and “wholesomeness.” The cavernous space lets in very little natural light, so the bright LED bulbs give it that real Gangnam feel, like you’re an office worker in the bustling Seoul district getting a quick lunch before heading back to the cubicle.
Here’s a quick primer on suhllungtang: it’s bland at first taste and that’s intentional. The waves of umami flavor lifted from boiling bones for hours on end don’t activate until you add some stuff to your bowl. Start with salt. There’s a small tin of sea salt waiting to get poured into your soup. Add a half teaspoon and add to taste. I think most people will find something between a half to full teaspoon to be sufficient though I’ve seen some crazy young folks add in two teaspoons. Young people and their low blood pressure.
Add some white pepper too, for some piquancy, though the real flavor is yet to come. What’s great about Han Bat and Young Dong isn’t their broth, per se. It’s the kimchi. Both of them arguably have the best fermented kimchi in Los Angeles. If you step behind the standalone building at Young Dong, you can see those traditional ceramic vats hiding behind the restaurant fermented hundreds of pounds of kimchi at any given time. This amazing production is what gives the broths at Han Bat and Young Dong their real power.
When you get the kimchi, both the baechu (napa cabbage) and kkakdugi (Korean radish), they’re pre-cut and ready to eat, which takes away some of the fun you get fumbling over the tongs and scissors at the other spots to cut your banchan into bite size portion. You’ll also immediately notice the kimchi here just isn’t quite up to snuff flavor-wise, which is a shame. They lack that deep funk, the ineffable deliciousness you get from a proper aging.
When I eat my suhllungtang, sprinkle in a few heaps of thinly sliced green onions and a a spoonfuls of rice. Don’t overload the thing with rice right away, is what most aunties told me when I started eating. It’s good wisdom because the soup deserves its time to shine.
I throw in some cubes of kkakdugi and baechu kimchi and the seasoning will gently wash off into the broth, imbuing their flavor in the process. Repeat this process until you run out of kimchi (you can always ask for more) and eat until you’ve emptied the bowl. By the end, my bowls have gained an almost pinkish tint from all that kimchi getting thrown in.
The real weakness at Chakan, in my opinion, is their wimpy meat. The brisket is shaved into thin slices that don’t have enough heft to stand up to the broth, which has a tonkotsu-like density. And I really miss MSG, because it tastes like the mid-range flavors are just missing from the broth. But if you’re into something a little more wholesome, a little more salutary at a modest price, try Chakan. For around $11, you get about $20-worth of bone broth at hipster prices. And for the same price, you can take a pre-packed bag of stuff home if you’re too hungover to leave the house.