Cho Eum ("Evergreen") is a great little Korean cafe in a Van Nuys mini-mall. But don't go looking for the sign unless you can read Korean. All the front window says in English is "Korean Barbecue Restaurant."
Even that is misleading. Yes, you can get barbecue here, but basically this is a place for hearty home cooking: soups, stir-fried octopus, griddled seafood and noodles with hot pepper sauces.
Korean food has been moving upscale in the Southland of late. Outside sprawling Koreatown, where there are scores and scores of Korean restaurants, we now have chic places like Seoul Jung at the Omni Hotel downtown and the luxurious Arirang in Pasadena.
Cho Eum has none of the lacquered furniture, copper table hoods and flower displays that you find in the big-name places. We're talking bare-bones here, though it actually does have some nice woodblock prints on the wall, and the soundtrack is Korean classical flute music. But you sit on hard wooden chairs at tables adorned only with toothpick and condiment holders.
You won't need anything else. In my book, Cho Eum serves the best Korean food in the Valley.
When you seat yourself here, you'll be handed a 40-item menu in English and Korean. It's not really a whole lot of help. Who would know, for instance, that No. 12 ("beef, mountain herbs over rice") would turn out to be a sizzling stone crock of rice, minced beef and a rainbow-colored array of delicious marinated vegetables topped with a fried egg? (The Korean name of the dish is dolsot bi bim bap.)
Order No. 9, soon dae soup, and you're in for more surprises. Even if you happen to know that soon dae is a sensationally flavorful blood sausage, you wouldn't expect to find sliced beef tendon and clear noodles in the broth as well. The broth, by the way, is an intense beef stock sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.
After you've ordered, the waiter will bring you a selection of side dishes (panch'an) that always accompany a Korean meal. These might be anything from a creamy potato salad to tiny black soy beans marinated in sugar and crushed red pepper, always including kimchi pickles.
I've been served three varieties: dry fermented cabbage kimchi, spicy pickled radish kimchi and "water" kimchi, which is cabbage in a fiery clear liquid.
Other panch'an have included little dishes of soft tofu, boiled summer squash, fried potato wedges and pressed dried spinach.
Dish No. 11 is translated as "cabbage leaves, etc." In fact, it's a terrific beef soup with a huge, meaty bone taking up most of the bowl. No. 20, "seafood and green onion pancake," is bin dae ttok, a pancake made from mung bean flour--a flat, crisp disc with sweet and salty overtones--cooked on a griddle with leek, shrimp, squid and octopus. You eat it with an anchovy sauce.
Try No. 33, buckwheat noodles (naeng myon) in spicy sauce. These are wonderful handmade noodles, soft, firm and just slightly floury, ever so slightly moistened with a red paste that will shoot directly from the roof of your mouth to the top of your head.
No. 17 is fried octopus with vegetable in hot sauce, but there isn't much vegetable. What you get here is a platter of stir-fried pieces of octopus, a few leeks and a more subtly spicy red sauce.
There are some less intimidating dishes worth sampling. No. 31, barbecued corvina, is two of these fish (of the bass family) barbecued simply with a little too much salt and served whole. Nos. 14 and 15 are small won tons (fried and steamed, respectively) with a chopped beef and leek filling in thick pasta wrappers.
No. 18 is "seasoned crab in row [sic] condition"--that is, she-crab with the roe, served as you like it, hot or cold.
At the bottom of the menu, at Nos. 37 through 40, comes the advertised barbecue: barbecued beef, barbecued short ribs, barbecued pork with hot sauce and barbecued chicken. The implication seems to be that the other 36 dishes are the real house specialties.
So what have we learned? Don't judge a book by its cover, don't believe everything you read in a sign, and if you want great blood sausage soup, go to Cho Eum.
* WHAT: Cho Eum.
* WHERE: 17621 Sherman Way, Van Nuys.
* WHEN: Open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
* HOW MUCH: Lunch for two, $14-$21. Suggested dishes: cabbage leaves, etc., $5.95; soon dae soup, $6.95; beef, mountain herbs over rice, $7.95; buckwheat noodles in spicy sauce, $5.99.
* FYI: No alcohol. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa.
* CALL: (818) 708-0099.