“I Love LA!” I sang, Randy Newman style, as I drove up the I-5 toward a city you either love or hate. To me, Los Angeles is a polar opposite of San Diego, offering everything from the glitz of Hollywood, and the Getty Villa, (my favorite LA hangout), world-class restaurants, and diverse neighborhoods brimming with authentic culture. I needed a fix. Here’s how it began: “Eva, I need to get out of Dodge! Let’s leave our comfort zone and explore Koreatown, LA,” I begged. Her spontaneous spirit kicked in and we were on our way. So, why Koreatown? Anthony Bourdain. I love his show, “Parts Unknown,” and since Los Angeles is just up the freeway, why not? Bourdain’s episode featuring Koreatown made my mouth water and aroused my curiosity. We researched some “not to be missed” places and found some new ones.
First stop, “Sun Nong Dan,” highly recommended by The LA Eater, Jonathan Gold. Open 24 hours a day, the cozy, maybe 15 table eatery, serves up strictly Korean dishes featuring steamy hot stews and bowls of soup, family style. An open doorway leads to the narrow kitchen where wafting aromas of spice and chili linger in the air, mingling with the sounds of sizzling dishes meeting the tables. Letters of gratitude from Korean celebrities?, taped to the wall are part of the decoration. Also on the wall, a mural of knife-yielding women and their somber observers. What are they doing?
Closely knit tables wedged us between students, families and professionals. Feeling a bit conspicuous with our white skin, we were still afforded the beautiful hospitality which defines this culture.
We took Gold’s advice and ordered the #24, Galbi Jjim, braised beef short ribs. Our server advised that this special dish would take 20 minutes to prepare. To ready us for this eating adventure, accompaniments of pickled green onions, cabbage and radish were placed along the side of the table to be shared and we were given our own bowl of pickled jalapeno dipping sauce and bowl of black rice that turns purple when cooked. Eva and I watched the other diners to see how they ate the dish. “Were there rules?” we asked our server. He shook his head no.
Voila! A large cast iron pot of the Galbi Jjim was placed between us. It was a show stopper! The brilliant garnet color of the stew had the appearance of shimmering, glossy lipstick. Mounds of hearty, thick short ribs, slices of beef, chunky potatoes, rice cake sticks, onion and chili combined for a beautiful presentation. We waited for the steam to subside before timidly taking our first bite. Sweet is the first taste which then becomes spicy but not too hot. You make your own heat with the jalapeno dipping sauce and chili paste. The onion gave it a sweetness while the rice cake sticks delivered an unexpected chewy texture. The depth of the layers of flavor was indescribable. It was impossible to discern the spices embedded in the stew. Not trying of over-analyze, we simply enjoyed every savory bite. The marrow in the flat bones was most likely meant to be eaten but there was so much food, we didn’t attempt it. The pickled vegetables were a cool bite during an intermission from the heat. We loved our experience at Sun Nong Dan and recommend it to anyone seeking truly authentic Korean cuisine.
We were now initiated into Koreatown! With full bellies, we continued the adventure. More next week so stay tuned!
“For me, food doesn’t just taste sweet, sour, spicy, what have you—it tastes of feelings, it invokes memories.”
― Renita D’Silva,
Ciao for now,