Dong Il Jang
3455 W. 8th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90005
A few years ago, InStyle magazine wrote a short, not-even-a-half-page story about Korean food. Unfortunately for InStyle, they were a little too early on their prediction of Korean cuisine becoming the hot new fashion in food, because even now, galbee and soon doo-boo jji-gae are not yet quite at the I’m-totally-craving-it stage for non-Koreans. But it won’t be too much longer. People are almost to the point where fish sauce of the Southeast Asian cuisines is as common as salsa. Not quite, but almost. After that, kimchee and dehn-jahng will be easy.
The one restaurant that InStyle named in that article years ago was Dong Il Jang. They had mentioned that a few celebrities had been spotted there, not that I cared, which is why I don’t remember who they were. Maybe Nicolas Cage? LOL! After I read the article in InStyle, I was sort of disappointed because I had always thought Dong Il Jang was pretty good, and just assumed that 1) InStyle’s naming it as a good place, especially with celebrity sightings, was a sign that it had become “Americanized”, and 2) even if it weren’t already Americanized, one of my favorites would go the way of Woo Lae Oak as more and more people would be interested in going to grab some galbee and catch a glimpse of Hollywood. *sigh*
Dong Il Jang looks the same as always, indoor koi pond, claustrophobic seating, Denny’s brown waitress uniforms on the Korean servers and all. I’ve never been to Dong Il Jang for lunch during the week, but lunch time on the weekend isn’t as crazy-busy as dinner. There are a few families dressed in up in their Sunday semi-best-for-LA having lunch after service at one of the hundred of Korean churches and foursomes of crispy tanned Asian men with golf hats on. The golfers aren’t sweaty from a round of 18 holes, but from a round of buckets at one of the nearby three-story driving ranges that are fully enclosed by netting, and they’re just shiny from their early afternoon soju. We took a seat in one of the booths.
The restaurant is equipped for barbecue, with gas grills built into the tabletops. As much as I love barbecuing galbee, bulgogi, and my favorite dae-jee bulgogi (spicy marinated pork) at the table, I shy away from it at Dong Il Jang because the fans don’t seem to work as well as some of the newer restaurants. There’s got to be a few more layers of galbee grease and fumes coating the screens, and since the fans are hung somewhat higher above the tables than other places, more smoke tends to escape the hoods into our hair, skin and clothing. We were hot and sweaty, having just come in from a whirlwind tour of the farmers' market under full sun, Jen says she’s had galbee before, and that she’s not squeamish. Well then!
We go with bibim naeng myun and jo-gee gui, whole broiled yellow corvina (corvina is a fish that I have only seen in Korean cuisine). I also took the opportunity to see if the restaurant that set my taste standard for hae-mool pah-jun so many years ago would now be able to match itself.
In the summer time, naeng myun is a popular Korean dish because like a salad or sushi, it is served cold. Naeng myun are thin, chewy buckwheat noodles served in a cold beef broth with any combination of sliced cucumber, radish, pear, hard-boiled egg, and slices of the beef that was used to make the broth. In hot weather, the broth is refreshing because it's cold, but also because with the addition of a hot yellow mustard similar to wasabi, it makes you sweat. Strange how hot things feel shyun-hae.
Naeng myun is something that Mom and the Twins love, but I’m not a huge fan. The noodles are too chewy for my taste, and the the entire dish always seems somewhat bland. Certainly, the hot mustard adds some heat, but it’s similar to wasabi with sushi – no real flavor, just a nostril hair singeing burn. I prefer bibim naeng myun – which has the same chewy buckwheat noodles, but no broth, and is mixed with a spicy red pepper and garlic sauce (“bibim” means “mixed,” like bibim bahp). Our server brought it out to us in the typical silver metal bowl and offered to cut the noodles for us with orange-handled Fiskars. They’re not kitchen shears, but they’re the best ones to do the job of cutting the very chewy naeng myun noodles into manageable lengths. After she cuts down the noodles, we mix the noodles with the sauce and split it into another smaller bowl to share. The noodles were chewy, as they should be, but not to the point where I had to swallow them whole, and the cucumers and pears were refreshing. The yahng-yeum (sauce) was deliciously spicy, though I'd make my own without so much sweetness. I'm not complaining - I didn't have to cook on a hot summer day.
Since it was lunch time, since there were only two of us, and since we hadn't ordered the more expensive barbecue items, we only got a few bahn chan. Of course there was kimchee, along with gamja joh-rim (potatoes braised in sweet soy sauce), kong namul (bean sprouts), shigeumchee namul (spinach), miyuk (kelp marinated with vinegar and sugar), and another strange Korean rendition on potato salad. The potatoes were cut into long thin strips like noodles, and the mayonnaise sauce was clorox white.
The bahn chan weren't awesome, both in selection and in their individual tastes. The kimchee was neither the cabbage nor the flavor I love, but no matter on any of it. I was interested in the hae-mool pah jun.
Hae-mool pah-jun, a large seafood- and green onion-filled pancake, is one of my all-time favorite Korean foods. I'm sure that I had tried it several times when I was younger, but it was only on my first visit to Dong Il Jang that I absolutely fell in love with it. Unfortunately, every subsequent order of hae-mool pah jun around Koreatown outside of Dong Il Jang ended up in utter disappointment. It would be overcooked dry, undercooked runny, too dough-y, not enough filling, too much krab-with-a-very-fake-"k," fish cake, rubber band calamari, shark bait tiny frozen shrimp, and the worst I've ever seen at a restaurant that I shall not name here, garnished with a maraschino cherry. *shaking head* A mara-focking-schino cherry! *sigh*
At first glance, our hae-mool pah jun looked a little suspicious. Some of the pancake "fillings" were showing through the fried batter as a little too bright pink, a clear indication of imitation krab or shrimp. Except for disgusting maraschino cherries and annanicolesmith, looks can be deceiving, so I took a piece and dipped it into the accompanying vinegary red pepper soy sauce, and yes, I had been deceived by the appearance. The hae-mool pah-jun was delicately crispy-fried on the outside. The inside was soft and gooey, not from improperly undercooked flour and egg batter, but from the briny liquor of the overflowing seafood - shrimp, which were small and probably thawed from frozen, but that's okay; krab, which I also forgive because I have actually never known any Korean restaurant to use real crab; and chewy clams. The best part was the layer upon layer of fresh, bright green onions, the "pah" part of the pah jun. I could have eaten the whole thing, but I didn't want to look like a big fat pig in front of someone I just met! LOL! But I got to take the leftovers home ;)
The broiled corvina was also good with charred, crisp skin on the outside that crackled when we pierced through it with our chopsticks. The cream-colored fish flesh was soft, flaky, and delicious. Jen wondered later how the actual fish flesh could have been so salty. I'm not sure if corvina is naturally salty, or the fish is somehow brined before broiling, but I've always known it to be fairly salty, just like ee-myun-soo (mackerel). That's probably why I love the stuff so much. Salty. :)
It was a good lunch at Dong Il Jang, especially eating the refreshing bibim naeng myun on such a hot day and finding that the hae-mool pah-jun that I had been using as my benchmark all this time was still just as good. But most importantly, I was re-assured that a restaurant that could potentially be identified as representative as the next hot/haute cuisine is no Woo Lae Oak. They just have to work on those servers' uniforms. Poor girls. ;)