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Toad’s Wild Ride

More or less equidistant from Club Joy and Club Tomorrow, conveniently located next door to the wistfully named Club If, the newish Korean cafe called L.A. Toad seems to be a favorite with Korean men. It’s a good place to stop for a bite on the way home from work or before hitting the bars, the kind of clean, shirt-sleeves restaurant with great food whose Anglo equivalent has all but slipped away--cheap enough for the average Joe, but with food so good that rich guys mob the place too. Inside, Toad feels like the Korean equivalent of one of those tiny, hidden trattorias in Rome, the smoky, tourist-free ones that never seem to make the guidebooks.

Toad isn’t set up for non-Koreans, you understand: None of the waitresses really speak more than a couple of words of English, the food is unfamiliar, and the untranslated menu is printed in Korean script on chopstick wrappers, in characters so small that you might have difficulty deciphering them even if you read Hangul fluently.

The restaurant, once you get past the guard in the parking lot and the man with the portable phone who always seems to lurk right inside the front door, is a plain dining room, rather pretty actually, with blond wood, rice-paper screens and a window that opens onto the kitchen. A carved wooden toad, the restaurant’s mascot, sits on a sake box, looking out over the place. Behind the glass, a woman cooks Korean pancakes with a look of great seriousness, spreading oil onto the hot griddle and carefully measuring out blobs of batter: potato pancakes, oyster pancakes, crisp pancakes with scallions and fresh chiles, all of which are delicious dunked into a soy-scallion dip. Almost everybody in the place is smoking cigarette after cigarette; laughing groups of men raise ceramic pitchers and pour each other glasses of Korean rice wine.

The first time we tried to eat at L.A. Toad, the waitress panicked, not sure what to do with us, and finally showed us to a tiny table toward the rear. She looked around for help and then backed away. The cook peeked out of the kitchen.

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A man in a white suit, looking a little like a Korean equivalent of the Christopher Walken character in “The Comfort of Strangers,” rose from the table where he had been eating dinner, and walked over to our corner of the room. He bowed slightly. “You know,” he said, quite formally, “this is a Korean restaurant, and at this restaurant you will find only Korean food. There are no hamburgers, no fried chickens.” He shuddered slightly at the thought of fried chicken, and reached up to tighten the knot on his tie. “I believe you will find no barbecue here.”

That night, through pointing and semaphore and walking around the restaurant to inspect other people’s plates, we wound up with a very fine meal: crisp, griddle-fried potato pancakes with sprigs of chrysanthemum pressed into them; stewed sweet, sanguineous Korean blood sausage, studded with rice, served with a tart chile dip; and warm, meaty-tasting slices of some cartilaginous animal part that we weren’t able to identify (one guess was muzzle; another was maw) but which was very pleasant with cold Korean beer. (You can get the last two as a combination appetizer plate.) There was a dish that included slices of boiled pork, raw oysters and a tangle of shredded radish kimchi , fiery-hot with chile--we wrapped them together in cabbage leaves and ate them like Korean tacos. We ate good, fist-size mandu --dumplings sort of Korean kreplach --that floated in a peppery broth. We’ve been back again and again, working our way through the pancake selection.

Good bibimbap can be among the most delicious of Korean dishes, and Toad’s is about the best in town. Arranged around the circumference of a flat bowl are a half-dozen little heaps of marinated vegetables--bean sprouts scented with sesame, stewed bamboo shoots, boiled spinach, that sort of thing--that you mix together with hot rice, and possibly the meat of a freshly fried fish. The contrast of hot and cool, salt and tart, soft and chewy is spectacular, and every bite offers a new and striking combination of flavors, right down to the bottom of the bowl. And bibimbap is an easy word to wrap your lips around. You won’t miss the barbecue at all.

L.A. Toad, 4503 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 460-7037. Open daily, 11 a.m. to midnight. Beer and wine. Take-out. Guarded lot parking. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$22.

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