This past rainstorm came and went like a clumsy intruder with a bucket of water. Gutters disappeared as the streets rose up to meet the sidewalk. Brave pedestrians crossed thoroughfares, their ankles wading through the water. The brave few with umbrellas clung to them desperately as the wind turned them inside out, transforming the scene into an array of origami-like flowers. The rain seemed to come out of nowhere and yet was a welcome respite from the past few weeks of impenetrable sunshine (god Los Angeles, just quit it already). With weather like this, there are two things I often feel compelled to do: bake and eat soup. Lentil, vegetable, black bean – yeah, that’s all good and tasty, but what I truly crave in this type of weather is some good Korean soup (tang or guk).
Korean soup? What’s that? Not the scorned black pot of fermented bean paste soup that arrives at your table when you’re eating Korean BBQ, many times outshone by its sexier counterpart (the smoky, aromatic, glistening galbi short ribs). I’m talking Korean grandmother-tested, and your dad-who-wears-slippers-with-socks-in-public-and-your mom-with-her-sixteen-golf-visors-in-her-car-pimped-out-with-a-furry-steering-wheel approved. When people think Korean food, thoughts of kimchi, galbi and colorful panchan immediately come to mind. But many overlook the transformative properties of Korean broth.
Kuengama is a 24-hour Korean soup joint on 8th and Mariposa in the heart of Los Angeles’ Koreatown. This place incidentally also boasts one of the best hangover remedies in town: haejangook (spicy beef broth with cabbage, vegetable and, if you so desire, congealed ox blood. Please don’t stop reading). Whenever I am getting over a cold, feel a cold coming on, have just brushed against someone who looks like they had a cold, you’ll find me here. Also, any family gathering, rainy day, hangover, or celebratory reason, this place is on my shortlist. I guess you could say it’s my Peach Pit.
This is not a place I take many of my non-Korean friends when they want Korean food (the Husband excluded). This is not a new and trendy sul jip (pub), nor are you greeted by wafts of sweetly bbq-ed meat laying on coals upon entering the restaurant. In fact, the most exciting thing about this place can can only be seen if you enter through the back entrance: some really big pots of soups that have been simmering for hours.
I’ve watched as many a non-Korean nervously scan the menu looking for something (anything!) recognizable. This is not a place for bibimbap or japchae folks, nor is this a panchan abounding place where you ooh and aah at all the small plates of food. This is a time to get your seolleongtang on (milky colored beef broth with meat and noodles). Or your kamjatang (spicy pork neck and potato soup). Or your samgyetang (ginseng and (a whole!) chicken soup). A time to look around at the droves of Korean plaid clad golfers and families, all repeat customers eagerly wolfing down their meals, giving the place more legitimacy than any Zagat rating could. A time to let your eyes rest on that crazy Korean drama playing on the big screen television where every actor is screaming and crying bloody murder, which of course has no one in the restaurant even batting an eye. Spectacular.
Just as I order the same kind of pastrami sandwich every time at Langers, here it’s always the seolleongtang for me. You can get it with meat, “guts” or mixed, but it is actually the broth I enjoy more than the meat itself, which I slowly fish out and pile uneaten on a separate plate (travesty!) while the Husband watches aghast, slowly shaking his head back and forth in disapproval. The Husband likes to mix it up, and has a few soups on rotation: the most recent being either the haejangook (hangover cure) or galbi tang (short rib soup). The soups pictured here are not spicy, but the haejangook (hangover cure) and kamjatang (spicy pork and potato) are quite spicy, characterized by their deep red, sweat-inducing broths.
Accompanying the soups are giant communal bowls of coarse sea salt and freshly cut green onion as well as a small side dish of shrimp paste — all which are are additional flavoring tools for your broth (usually, the non-spicy soups). I also like to order the beandaeduck (mung bean pancakes) to give the meal a variety of flavor and texture. I think theirs is one of the best in all of Koreatown and at under $8, half the price of the pajun (seafood pancake), very reasonably priced (much of their menu is under $10).
Only two types of kimchi will grace the table here – Kkakdugi (radish) and regular napa cabbage kimchi. Each table is armed with the ubiquitous Korean preferred mother-of-all tools (scissors) to cut the kimchi into bite-sized pieces (or not, like my mother who swears uncut kimchi tastes better and furiously waves my hand away when I approach with scissors in hand). Bonus: if you’ve ever fantasized about being Edward Scissorhands for even one minute, you really must try this kind of dining.
Finally, the pièce de résistance is the heuk mi ssal rice. Served in an earthen pot with the lid on, this is a black and white rice mixture with tender soybeans and chestnuts sprinkled about. The end result is a beautiful purple ebony color showcased in an elaborate voilà moment when the lids are taken off. The ingenious earthen pot stays hot for hours, slowly cooking the rice even more so that the bottom of the bowl rice gets extra crispy as you are enjoying your meal. Talk about multi-tasking. Towards the end of the meal, hot roasted barley tea (boricha) is then poured into the rice pot to create yet another soup-y treat: nurungji (crispy rice) with tea.
Growing up, I didn’t understand my mom’s obsession and reverence for nurungji. I would often whine and ask why she wanted to eat a pot of “dirty rice” (I can’t believe she let me out of the house sometimes). Years later, I began to understand the allure of the crispy morsels of chewy rice, soaked in an earthy broth of roasted barley tea, matched with a singular piece of kimchi gingerly laid on top to create the perfect mouthful. I didn’t understand that it warmed your belly and your soul to eat such simple and hearty food. And now I can’t get enough. Rain or shine.