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The Find: Mapo in L.A.'s Koreatown

Soups, handmade noodles and Mom's daikon recipe make Mapo restaurant a standout.

By C. Thi Nguyen, Special to the Los Angeles Times

April 29, 2010

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If Korean barbecue restaurants are the cultural equivalents of American steakhouses — overwhelming piles of meat and booze for a celebratory night out — then Mapo restaurant is the Korean version of a great country diner. Mapo is about the elemental, the rustic and the simple perfection of everyday standards.

At Mapo, a tiny restaurant tucked into a strip mall at the corner of 6th and Normandie in Koreatown, there are some barbecue dishes on the menu, but there's a reason they're all shoved into a corner at the end of the menu; they're merely perfunctory here. What you want are the country classics — soups, casseroles, handmade noodles. You want the stuff that a Korean grandmother might tell you was good for you.

The specialty of the house is something called "delicious soup with dough flakes." The dish is about as stripped-down as you can get: a simple broth, studded with a few bits of squash and the tiniest clams you can imagine and loaded to the brim with thick dough flakes. The dough flakes are the key to Mapo's soul: Think thick, ragged hunks of hand-torn dough, like a primitive version of bowtie pasta. When noodles first emerged from the sea to walk on legs, they probably looked a lot like this.

Each dough flake is worth paying individual attention to. They're these chunky, small packages, a little bit gooey on the outside and dense on the inside — pure satisfaction of chew. Elsewhere in town, you might have to pay out the nose for freshly made al dente pasta this satisfyingly good; here, an enormous bowlful is $8.

As you eat, you'll see plate after plate pass by of lightly browned small fish. Trust the regulars. This is the other specialty of the house, fried flatfish, called "roasted ga jae mi fish" on the menu. Lee's frying technique is perfect; the fish emerges quietly crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. The fillets peel off the bone with the slightest tug of the chopsticks.

Spicy beef soup is fun to eat, with long strings of beef, noodles and slender sprouts wrapping around each other in a pleasant confusion. Seasoned broiled black cod is warming and excellent; the flavors of cod and fermented soy paste form a sort of dense nectar, which the chunks of daikon soak up like a sponge.

Banchan — the spread of small dishes that accompanies every Korean meal — is another specialty here. Banchan occupies a cultural place somewhere between appetizer, condiment, pickle and side dish. You munch on them as you wait for your food, you throw them on your rice and in your soup, in whatever way your heart takes you.

Owner Kyoung Sun Lee takes tremendous pride in the quality and variety of her banchan. She bought the restaurant in 2004, keeping the name but making the food her own. Mapo's banchan is clear, vivid, sparklingly fresh. This is due, in part, to a regional taste. Lee and her mother grew up in the S. Korean province of Gyeonggi. Lee says the region's banchan is "kalkalhada," a Korean word referring to a slightly dry, clean spiciness.

Perhaps best of all is her banchan of kkakdugi — spicy cubes of pickled daikon. This dish is so important to Lee that the restaurant's full Korean name roughly translates to "Mapo House of Pickled Daikon." She uses her mother's marinade recipe, which, she says, is the secret. The kkakdugi she makes is extraordinary — a mild pickled radish flavor with a zippy, Champagne-like effervescence. It's a little sweet, a lot crunchy and, if you want more, all you have to do is ask.

Location: 3611 W 6th St, Los Angeles.

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