I remember when Chosun Galbee used to be on Western Avenue, the entrance hidden in the back, a modest street presence, sandwiched between two neighboring businesses, smaller space, and a very plain, simple interior decor. Now, the building stands alone on the corner of Olympic and a small side street Manhattan Place, screaming its name from two sides. The interior has been dressed up to sleek and modern with lots of metal, glass, and light colored wood; not like other Korean restaurants that are either undecorated, or have a dark, all-wooden, traditional Korean countryside feel. Like Sagan and Surah in Orange County, it's become a little more acceptable as a place to go with parents.
Most of the seating is in the front outdoor patio, an area that’s enclosed on the sides by greens and decorative opaque plastic screens. Though it’s heated, and covered over with steel rafters to protect less from the maybe-three-days of rain we get in L.A. and more from the chaotic traffic outside, it’s well ventilated to keep hair, clothes, skin from reeking of smoke for days.
Chosun Galbee is big-time now; and is oft-recommended to non-Koreans as a fairly good representation of Korean cuisine. I’ve eaten there a few times since they’ve relocated, but not since I’ve seen their website, and their commercials on TV. Hmmm. TV commercials are for Applebee’s and Red Lobster. That makes me worry.
My shoes are klack klack klacking up the walkway, and I worry as I pass a little stone statue in the entry. I’m late. And the statue is a chubby little peasant boy happily playing his flute, perched atop a sitting cow. Does he know his pet cow is about to be slaughtered for galbee? No. Do I know that my father’s paternal obligation is to make me feel guilty? Of course. “Oh! Sarah’s finally here. Now we can finally eat.” Yes, I am the reason that my father, who calls himself the Captain, and my family are starving. I sit down low in the chair and bury myself in the menu.
I don’t really ever have to look at the menu when we go out to eat Korean food. My mother is the queen of our family’s cuisine, so does most of the ordering, but my father’s is very generously offering his unasked opinions. Our server is trying desperately to figure out who is in charge. Four orders of galbee from my Mom. Dad says three. I feel for her, especially since she’s wearing a somewhat contemporized version on a hahm-bohk (traditional Korean dress). It’s neon pink, so I really feel for her. She confirms three order of regular galbee and one order of saeng gal-bee, without marinade.
A lot can be surmised about the quality of a Korean meal by the bahnchan that come out first. Chosun serves a decent variety of just decent tasting bahn-chan. There were some traditionally Korean ones: moo (sweet, spicy shredded daikon), kong-namul (seasoned soybean sprouts), and boo-choo jun (chive crepes). However, the kimchee was underripe, and had no real flavor other than red pepper and vinegar. Certainly, kimchee has a fairly strong taste just based on the fermentation alone, but usually garlic should also be an obvious contribution. I also like it when raw oysters or baby shrimp have been fermenting along with the kimchee, but that’s not required. Let’s just say that if I had the ambition to squat with a large plastic tub between my knees, stuffing Napa cabbage leaves with kimchee spices, I’d add oysters, too. :) I never understood how potato salad became a bahn-chan. Weird.
What the single slice of onion is for, I’m never quite sure. The server rubs it over the grill so I suppose it’s meant to wipe down the grates. I’m the only one in my family who eats the caramelized cleanser. My family also knows that the mushrooms are my favorite babies, and as they snap up the meat from the grill, they are careful not to overturn them, lest I spank them with my chopsticks for spilling the delicious mushroom juice that collects inside.
The galbee is only so-so, and confirms my belief that galbee is now universally too sweet. I liked the saeng galbee better, and snuck pieces of it away from my diabetic uncle. With a generous smear of the daen-jahng (fermented soybean paste), it’s suited perfectly to my taste. When all the sahl (meat) is cooked and gone, my Mom puts the raw, flat, wide bones on the grill. When they’re black and charred, she and I are the only ones who grab them with our hands and gnaw away at the fat, ligaments, and finally, the periosteum. Betcha didn't know I knew such a scientific word. Now you know. ;)
After the sweet, sticky, smoky galbee, naeng-myun is a refreshing palate cleanser. Naeg-myun are buckwheat noodles served cold in a broth with just a few slices of the beef that was used to make the broth, cucumber, and either daikon radish or apple pears. The noodles are long, thin and chewy, so the server usually asks if she should “jjahl-luh” (cut) them with scissors. It makes it much easier to eat. The naeng myun tastes better than their galbee, and perhaps they should consider changing their name to Chosun Naeng-myun.
According to Mom, oo-guh-jee means turnip, but when it’s in a tahng (soup), it can refer to any number of leafy green vegetables. My Dad ordered oo-guh-jee galbee tahng, and said it was just alright, I wouldn’t know since I didn’t get to taste it. Somewhat jokingly, but somewhat honestly, my Dad doesn’t like to share.
Hae-mool pah-jun is one of my all time favorite Korean foods. The jun refers to the pancake made of a simple flour, water, and egg batter that also doubles as a coating for tempura-like deep fry. Hae-mool are the various seafood, and pah is green onions. Often, just pah-jun, the pancake with only the green onions, can be a bahn-chan but with hae-mool added, it can be a meal in itself. With a good dose of kimchee, of course.
The best pah-juns I’ve had in the past are far less a pancake with seafood, and much more hae-mool, tenuously held together with a thin batter. The pancake, as large as a medium pizza, invokes marvel at how the chef could have flipped the thing in the pan and kept it whole. It falls apart with chopsticks, leaving bits behind in a small bowl of red peppered vinegar soy sauce. The outside is oily crisp, fried dark around the edges and soft, slightly runny on the inside from the liquer around each crab (real meat), squid, shrimp, and most especially, oyster.
Chosun galbee’s hae-mool pah-jun is far from any of that, and unfortuantely, is a woeful embarassment to Korean cuisine. The pancake batter itself is far too floury, making it dreadfully dry and thick, which could have been ignored if there had been enough hae-mool and vegetables to cut the flour. Of the paltry representation of the pseudo-ocean that was there, it was only imitation crab meat and pitiful rings of squid that, given their rubberband-like chewiness, were obviously frozen then thawed in a microwave. There were a few slices of o-deng (fishcake) on top, but for god’s sake, at least the imitation crab looks like crab; they used the ones that have neon pink edges. No shrimp, no clams, no oysters. And to add insult to injury, the miserable seafood pancake – for it hurts me to call it hae-mool pah-jun - is garnished with a gaudy maraschino cherry. I have no words. I cannot speak.
Finish, as usual, is shik-hae, a sweet rice punch. I don’t drink the stuff in general. Grayish yellow, with five or six grains of mushy rice and crushed pine nuts floating in it, it looks like the water in the sink that’s left behind after washing dishes from a Korean meal. Dirty dishwater for dessert. *ew* But even if Chosun Galbee served bananas foster, I wouldn’t have eaten it, I was so deflated, disappointed, appalled – a whole number of words – by the haemool pah jun. Not only did it taste bad to me, but my god, this is a place that many non-Koreans come to get a taste for the cuisine. What would they think?
I can accept the sticky sweet galbee, since now that seems to be a general trend in Korean cuisine, and sugar appeals to many tastebuds. The naeng-myun was fairly good, and the according to Dad, the oo-guh-jee tahng was acceptable (but he never likes anything, so it must have been pretty good) too. But bad bahn-chan and horrendous hae-mool pah-jun? If I actually had a choice, I wouldn’t go back. But this is my family we’re talking about, and it’s always Captain’s choice ;)
3330 West Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90019