Vichyssoise. Gazpacho. Borscht. Every culture seems to have a traditional dish of cold soup providing respite from sweltering temperatures and fortitude for who knows what else. For Koreans, this dish is mul naeng myeon.
In Los Angeles’ Koreatown, finding a good bowl of naeng myeon can be a game. The start of naeng myeon “hunting” season is heralded with the first hot day of the year. Jostling Korean restaurants place ads in Korean newspapers in an attempt to draw customers, tempting readers with eye-catching photos of mouth-watering combination specials like the veritable kalbi naeng myeon combo. Discerning customers trickle into restaurants, trying to find the perfect balance of noodles that are chewy but not overly so, and broth that is tangy but not too sweet. Like a good man, a satisfying bowl of naeng myeon can be hard to find.
Naeng myeon, which literally means “cold noodles” is a dish with two varieties: spicy noodles with no broth (bibim naeng myeon) or noodles with a tangy clear broth (mul nang myeon). The latter is my personal favorite and has several components: a cold, translucent and flavorful broth, thin chewy noodles and a satisfying array of cold accoutrement layered on top (thinly sliced Asian pear, pickled radish, cucumbers and boiled beef with often half a boiled egg as the pièce de résistance).
Naeng myeon noodles are long and thin and often made of buckwheat, potato and/or sweet potato, with variations of arrowroot, green tea and seaweed. Arrowroot noodles are healthier and a bit chewier than the usual buckwheat variety (plus, have that great Legend of Zelda-ish name). Naeng myeon noodles are very thin, usually light in color (except arrowroot which is dark brown), and has a satisfyingly chewy yet easily slurp-alicious quality to them. Like any Asian noodles, they are said to signify long life but for convenience’s sake, the option to cut them into more manageable sections exists at any restaurant. (Your Korean waitress may approach your table à la Edward Scissorhands gesturing wildly, which signifies your turn to nod politely at her, showing no fear.)
The mul naeng myeon broth is complex and is akin to the Supreme Court test for obscenity: something better recognized than described. It is both sweet and salty, iced and full of flavor from the beef, chicken or dongchimi (a type of kimchi) which gives life to the broth. At the table, each person’s mul naeng myeon broth is further flavored with white vinegar and a yellow mustard to give the broth more depth.
My favorite mul naeng myeon contender this season is the unassuming So Hyang (3435 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90010; 213.385.5600). Offering a $9.99 kalbi naeng myeon special all the time, it offers some of the best-tasting mul naeng myeon, in an upscale atmosphere with a price yet to be rivaled. Since this is a Korean BBQ joint to begin with, the perfectly charred, sweetly marinated side of sizzling kalbi accompanying the mul naeng myeon is solid. Together both are the perfect complement to a warm weather day.
Another strong contender worthy of honorable mention this season is Ham Hung (3109 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90006; 213.381.1520). Let the games begin!