Let's Eat Out : Bowled Over With Tastes

Times Staff Writer

The first time I ate at Hyang Mi, the table was literally covered with the little bowls of relishes and tidbits that one Korean woman calls "knickknacks." There were at least 20 of these in addition to the soup, rice, grilled fish, barbecued beef ribs and other dishes that composed the meal.

The condiment bowls held several types of kimchee; dark, chewy sweet beans; squares of pressed ground meat; octopus in sweet-hot red sauce; fish roe; steamed bean curd; steamed radish, spinach and sweet potato leaves; sweet-tasting dried radish, and much more. Thinking of kimchee only as spicy pickled cabbage, I was interested in versions made with onion, radish, stuffed cucumber and a fresh, unsalted kimchee. Water kimchee, which featured white radish and sliced serrano chile in salted water, is eaten to clean the mouth, create taste and help digestion, my Korean companion said.

Another time, when I ordered only one simple dish for lunch, I received nine condiment bowls, offering more food than a lone diner could eat. Dinner for a party of three merited 10 bowls.

Less Relish Bowls

Months later, returning with two companions, I was disappointed to find that the relish bowls had dwindled to a handful, including sweet and sour cucumber, kimchee and tiny dried fish, but not the sticky beans that I had enjoyed formerly and other exotic but addictive treats.

The standard number of bowls is now seven, the waitress explained, whether the party includes one person or more. Lunch, however, was no disappointment. If anything, it was lively and cheerful, as almost everything we ate was red, reflecting the Korean fondness for hot chile.

Hot stewed beef turned out to be a spicy red soup that included a little shredded beef. Chili bean soup bore no resemblance to hearty Southwestern chili. Instead of beans, the soup included tofu, along with meat, clams and vegetables in a highly spiced red-orange broth. Even steamed corvina, which sounded like a mild, plain fish, came in a deep red sauce with a sneaky dash of chile that appeared in the aftertaste, not at first bite.

The only relief from all this color was the barbecued beef with brown (actually red leaf) lettuce. The dining procedure is to place a few beef strips on a lettuce leaf, add some rice and zesty sauce, fold the lettuce and bite into this marvelous package.

Pan-Fried Octopus

Another lunch also produced red food. Pan-fried octopus would have delighted any lover of Sichuan cooking. The octopus was mingled with green onion, sliced carrot, sliced red chile and a dash of sesame seeds in a hot-sweet red sauce. Cold mixed noodles were sticky, fine noodles tinted orange with a chile sauce that included sugar and sesame oil. The noodles came in a clump garnished with pickled cucumber, white radish, thinly sliced beef and tiny white beans, all of this crowned with a hard-cooked egg half that looked lumpily out of place.

Those who frequent Korean restaurants for the barbecued meats should know that Hyang Mi does not have table-top grills. The barbecuing is done out of the dining room, which eliminates not only smoke and sizzle but the convivial fun of group cooking.

Meals come with soup, rice, corn tea and, sometimes, seasonal fruit. Sample prices include $8.95 for the steamed corvina; $7.25 for the barbecued beef with lettuce, and $7.95 for the pan-fried octopus.

Hyang Mi Korean restaurant, 966 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles. Phone (213) 734-7794 for reservations. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Takes Visa and MasterCard. Has parking lot.

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