To eat in Seoul, South Korea is to believe that there are “specialists” of everything — pastas, stews, sashimi, mackerel jorim, pork-neck and potato stew, barbecue, spicy rice cakes and snack food, and fried chicken, to name a few. The first thing one notices at Hyesung Noodle House is that the menu is four items long — and this menu is three items more than what’s offered at their Seoul location.
In the Dongdaemun district’s Cheongnyangri-Dong, there is but one credible specialist of kalguksu, or Korean knife-cut noodle soup: Hyesung Kalguksu. The subway stop-adjacent hole-in-the-wall exclusively serves kalguksu, and has fed countless bowls of the steaming hot, savory broths and chewy noodles to accountants, police officers, hospital workers, and high school students since opening in Seoul in 1968. “Kalguksu, 8,000 [Korean Won, about $7]” hangs from the wall on a small placard. That’s the menu in Seoul.
Hyesung Noodle House here in LA’s Koreatown is Hyesung Kalguksu’s first overseas location. Hyesung’s original owner, Min Sook Kim, spent the first two months since opening running back-of-house operations in Los Angeles, and her son, Steven Bai, will be overseeing operations.
The Los Angeles location, tucked into the corner of a mini-mall off Western Ave. facing Thai papaya salad specialist Isaan Station, is a little less spartan than its South Korean counterpart. Brightly lit white walls with wood accents contrast against ebony-stained tables, while the familiar stainless steel bowls gleam at every table. The menu is enormous compared to the Seoul branch: It has a whole four items — myeolchi/dak kalguksu (anchovy/chicken knife cut noodles), dwaeji bossam (boiled pork belly slices with cabbage) and buchimgae (a vegetable pancake).
Despite a larger menu, Hyesung still manages to focus on detailed preparation. The bossam pork is cooked in the traditional Korean manner, slightly bland with the dull notes of medicinal herbs, the muscular flesh firmed up, and chewy with a healthy hunk of gelatinous fat. Of course, it takes a dash of the saeujeot, or salted fermented shrimp sauce, to unlock all of the flavor. The blitz of briny salt should be added sparingly, but with it the dish compares favorably in its fidelity to the Korean ideal to others in the city.
The star of the show, the reason why Angelenos will be new additions to the throngs of Seoul commuters already under Hyesung’s spell, is the kalguksu. Thick, doughy knife-cut noodles steeped in a broth of anchovy or chicken sound simple on paper. The chicken kalguksu employs a rich, properly down-home chicken broth lightly brought along with onion. Torn pieces of chicken meat add to the proceedings, but the broth and noodles make the dish. A slice of the kimchi (traditionally stirred into the broth with additional red chili paste) adds some vinegary zip to the proceedings, though with a broth at this level of finesse, it hardly seems necessary.
And then there’s the matter of the anchovy broth with the same noodles. The elixir thrums with smoky umami, the rich liquid of smoky fish unobscured by aromatic alliums the way it might be just about everywhere else in the city. The anchovy kalguksu at Hyesung Noodle House is a proper boiled response to more than 50 years of bitter-cold Seoul winters, appropriately satisfying and transplanted to Angelenos.
Which is not to say Hyesung’s anchovy kalguksu is simply a seasonal dish (even though it’s perfect for cold weather). Competitive logic, creating seasonal options for diners, or offering something to please everyone don’t really seem to be a part of Hyesung’s DNA. By Hyesung’s logic, there’s no need to make “something for everyone,” or “something seasonal” — after all, kalguksu is for everyone, anytime.
Hyesung Noodle House is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Closed Mondays. (323) 745-5001