If you peer into the back of the kitchen at Madang Gooksoo, you might see a tall Korean American guy in white, covered in flour, hand-cutting the kalgooksu noodles for the day. That’s Danny Lee, the owners' son.
He started helping with the family business when he was 16 years old. This was in 1993. The L.A. riots had just rocked residents and business owners in Koreatown, the hardest hit area of the city. Mini-malls were burned out husks. Apartment buildings were smoldering piles of rubble. So it was for the Lees, whose apartment was one of those destroyed.
The family decided to start anew by taking over one of the five smaller retail spaces on the corner of Western and 9th Street. They started a noodle joint, having made noodles for church fundraisers. Later, Danny's dad grew a funeral business out of helping out with ceremonies for church members and their families.
The way his mom tells the story, Danny was the leader of a K-Town gang. She had to bail him out of juvie after some trouble with BB guns in Beverly Hills. The way Danny tells the story, he just "got into some trouble with some bad kids." His father got the bright idea to keep his younger son off the streets by getting him busy making noodles.
That was 20 years ago. And he's been making noodles for the restaurant practically every day since then.
Even during his time at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, Danny would wake up at 5 in the morning, put on his chef coat for his culinary classes, come to the restaurant after school and make noodles. He says, "I feel weird if I don't touch flour even one day."
So, what did he do after culinary school? Danny came right back to making noodles at the family's humble noodle shop.
Does he make the noodles any different now that he's had culinary training? Not really. He says, "My technique has changed." He grins. "I just make larger batches."
Is there a secret to their noodles? "There’s no secret,” Danny says. "We use regular flour, eggs, salt and a little bit of vegetable oil. They’re just never over 24 hours old."
Even now, you’ll see Danny in the kitchen hand-cutting the dough for their steaming bowls of kalgooksu. That is, when he’s not driving the hearse with his older brother, the policeman, for the family’s funeral business.
Madang Gooksu will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in August.
869 S. Western Ave., No. 1, Los Angeles, (213) 487-6008.